Research Basics

In college writing, research means finding information, ideas, and answers in sources (anything that is published or produced). And it also means analyzing and sharing what you’ve found. Whether you are a scientist, an artist, a paralegal, or a parent, you probably perform research in your everyday life. When your boss, your instructor, or a family member asks you a question that you do not know the answer to, you locate relevant information, analyze your findings, and share your results. Locating, analyzing, and sharing information are key steps in the research process. By developing these research writing skills, you will prepare yourself to answer any question no matter how challenging.

Throughout this textbook, the items that you find in research and put to use in your essay will be called sources. As briefly noted above, a source is anything that is published or produced in such a way as for others to access it. The most common types of sources used in research essays are texts, such as articles, essays, reports, or chapters, whether they are on Websites or in books or periodicals. But there are, of course, many other kinds of sources as well, such as videos, images, audio files, etc.

Reasons for Research

When you perform research, you are essentially trying to solve a mystery—you want to know how something works or why something happened. In other words, you want to answer a question that you (and other people) have about the world. This is one of the most basic reasons for performing research.

But the research process does not end when you have solved your mystery. Imagine what would happen if a detective collected enough evidence to solve a criminal case, but she never shared her solution with the authorities. Presenting what you have learned from research can be just as important as performing the research. Research results can be presented in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular—and effective—presentation forms is the research essay. A research essay (also called a research paper) presents an original thesis about a subject, and it develops and supports that thesis with information gathered from a variety of sources.

If you are curious about the possibility of life on Mars, for example, you might choose to research the subject. What will you do, though, when your research is complete? You will need a way to put your thoughts together in a logical, coherent manner. You may want to use the facts you have learned to create a narrative or to support an argument. And you may want to show the results of your research to your friends, your teachers, or even the editors of magazines and journals. Writing a research essay is an ideal way to organize thoughts, craft narratives, or make arguments based on research, and share your newfound knowledge with others.

Research Writing and the Academic Essay

No matter what field of study you are interested in, you will most likely be asked to write a research essay during your academic career. For example, a student in an art history course might write a research essay about an artist’s work. Similarly, a student in a psychology course might write a research essay about current findings in childhood development.

Having to write a research essay may feel intimidating at first. After all, researching and writing a long essay requires a lot of time, effort, and organization. However, writing a research essay can also be a great opportunity to explore a subject that is particularly interesting to you. The research process allows you to gain expertise on a subject of your choice, and the writing process helps you remember what you have learned and understand it on a deeper level.

Steps of the Research Writing Process

How does a research essay grow from a collection of brainstormed notes to a polished final draft? No two projects are identical, but most projects follow a series of six basic steps.

These are the steps in the research writing process:

  1. Choose a subject.
  2. Plan and schedule time to research and write.
  3. Conduct research.
  4. Organize research and ideas.
  5. Draft your essay.
  6. Revise and edit your essay.

Here is a brief look at what each step involves.

Step 1: Choosing a Subject

To narrow the focus of your subject, you may try free-writing exercises, such as brainstorming. You may also need to ask a specific research question—a broad, open-ended question that will guide your research—as well as propose a possible answer, or a working thesis. You may use your research question and your working thesis to create a research proposal. In a research proposal, you present your main research question, any related sub-questions you plan to explore, and your working thesis. For more information on how to create a research proposal, see the section Research Proposal and Annotated Bibliography.

Step 2: Conducting Research

When going about your research, you will likely use a variety of sources—anything from books and periodicals to video presentations and in-person interviews.

Your sources will include both primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources provide firsthand information or raw data. For example, surveys, in-person interviews, and historical documents are primary sources. Secondary sources, such as biographies, literary reviews, or magazine articles, include some analysis or interpretation of the information presented. As you conduct research, you will take detailed, careful notes about your discoveries. You will also evaluate the legitimacy and reliability of each source you find.

This stage is often helped by starting and continually updating an annotated bibliography. For more information on how to do that, see the section Research Proposal and Annotated Bibliography.

Step 3: Organizing the Research and Your Own Ideas

When your research is complete, you will organize your findings and decide which sources to cite in your essay. This is aided by completing an annotated bibliography (perhaps one you started in the previous step), which is a list of your sources along with notes about each. You will also have an opportunity to evaluate the evidence you have collected and determine whether it supports your thesis, or the focus of your essay. You may decide to adjust your thesis or conduct additional research to ensure that your thesis is well supported.

For more information on how to write an annotated bibliography, see the section Research Proposal and Annotated Bibliography.

Step 4: Drafting Your Essay

At this stage you are ready to combine your research findings with your critical analysis of the results in a rough draft. You will incorporate source materials into your essay and discuss each source thoughtfully in relation to your thesis.

When you cite your reference sources, it is important to pay close attention to the rules and conventions for citing sources in order to avoid plagiarism (the act of using words, information, or ideas from a source without acknowledging that source). For information on citation, see the chapter MLA Format and Citation.

Step 5: Revising and Editing Your Essay

In the final step of the research writing process, you will adjust your essay. You might add or cut out sections for clarity, focus, or completeness. You might also re-organize your essay’s structure or revise for unity and cohesion, ensuring that each element in your essay connects to the next logically and naturally.

Once you feel confident in the strength of your writing, you will edit your essay for proper spelling, grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and formatting. When you complete this final step, you will have transformed a simple idea or question into a thoroughly researched essay.

Research Terminology

Research writing requires you to seek and engage with many different forms of information, and each of those forms has specialized terms. Some of these terms, such search engine and Website, you have heard and used before casually, but since they are easily confused, reviewing the precise use of them here is wise. Other terms you might never have heard before, and becoming familiar with them now is vital. Below are those terms and definitions.


Important Terms (That Students Often Confuse)

  • Source: anything containing information, words, or ideas that has been published or produced so as to be available for reading, listening, or viewing. Examples of sources: articles, books, videos, Websites, magazines, social-media posts, dictionaries, songs, governmental documents, interviews, religious texts, scientific reports, etc.
  • Browser (or Web browser): a program that lets you access the Web (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, etc.)
  • Search Engine: a site that lets you search the Web (Google, Bing, etc.)
  • Database: an electronic collection of sources
  • Card Catalog: a library’s list of available books, periodicals, and similar media; card catalogs are often searchable online
  • Keyword: a specific term relevant to your research subject that you use in electronic searches (search engines, card catalogs, and databases); finding the best or most common keywords for your subject makes searching for sources more efficient and effective
  • Website (or site): a set of interconnected Webpages
  • Webpage: a document from a Website that can contain multiple media (text, pictures, video, etc.)
  • Citation (also the verb to cite): the documentation of what information, words, or ideas came from what source, along with the publication/production information for that source


Important Forms of Sources (That Students Often Confuse)

  • Book: a general term for a long work of any genre, often 50,000 words or more
  • Novel: a fiction book, which means the ideas and events it contains were imagined for entertainment or literary purposes
  • Story: a short work of fiction, often less than 10,000 words
  • News story: a short report for the general public of real, current events
  • Essay or article: a short work of non-fiction, often less than 10,000 words
  • Textbook: a non-fiction book used to teach you something, often including summaries, glossaries, comprehension questions, and other study aids
  • Journal, review, or magazine: a collection of articles and essays, or of stories, often one that recurs every so often as issues
  • Periodical: a collection of articles or essays that comes out on a regular basis, such as a newspaper or magazine
  • Scholarly or academic book, journal, or article: a non-fiction work or collection of works written by experts and specialists for other experts or specialists
  • Reference book: a non-fiction book that presents information collected in lists or entries, such as a dictionary or encyclopedia
  • Op-Ed or opinion piece: an argumentative or opinionated article often published within news sites or journals, as opposed to purely informative reports or articles. These are not the same as unreliable sources that are secretly biased, fake, etc.; instead, these are openly clarified as debatable positions and arguments and are thus legitimate in that they are what they say they are.
  • Literature or literary works: writings that are intended to be artful, often fiction, but can be in the form of poems, plays, scripts, and songs
  • Biography: non-fiction about a person’s life
  • Autobiography: non-fiction about the author’s own life
  • Anthology: a collection of writings, often of literary works


Less Common Terms That Are Specific to Research Writing

  • Primary Source: the original source of information (relative to your focus). Example: If you’re writing about free speech in the Constitution, then the First Amendment to the Constitution is your primary source. But this is relative to your focus, so if you were writing an essay about Wikipedia and how it influences common consensus on free speech, then Wikipedia is now your primary source.
  • Secondary Source: a response to or study of the primary source, often engaged and in-depth. Example: If you’re writing about free speech in the Constitution, then an article written by a scholar that analyzes the First Amendment would be your secondary source.
  • Tertiary Source: a discussion of secondary or primary sources, often less engaged by way of summary. Example: If you’re writing about free speech in the Constitution, a Wikipedia page about the First Amendment would be a tertiary source.
  • Abstract (as a noun): a summary of a long article, often associated with scholarly or academic sources
  • Peer-Reviewed (as an adjective): a source that has been subjected to critique by other experts in the field (often called “scholarly”)
  • Boolean (as an adjective modifying “phrase” or “search”): searching according to Boolean logic, which allows customization with operators such as and, or, not.
    • Using Boolean phrases while searching can help you immensely in your research. Here are some examples of how you can use Boolean searches in Google’s search engine (these tell you what to add to your search in the search bar, all quoted from here):
      • Exclude words from your search: Put – in front of a word you want to leave out. For example, jaguar speed -car
      • Search for an exact match: Put a word or phrase inside quotes. For example, “tallest building”.
      • Search within a range of numbers: Put .. between two numbers. For example, camera $50..$100.
      • Combine searches: Put “OR” between each search query. For example, marathon OR race.
      • Search for a specific site: Put “site:” in front of a site or domain. For example, or
      • Search for related sites: Put “related:” in front of a web address you already know. For example,
      • Search social media: Put @ in front of a word to search social media. For example: @twitter.
      • Search hashtags: Put # in front of a word. For example: #throwbackthursday
      • See Google’s cached version of a site: Put “cache:” in front of the site address.



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The Writing Textbook Copyright © 2021 by Josh Woods, editor and contributor, as well as an unnamed author (by request from the original publisher), and other authors named separately is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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