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5.1: The Purpose of Research Writing

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    The Purpose of Research Writing

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    • Who has written poetry about exile?
    • What roles did women play in the American Revolution?
    • Where do cicadas go during their off years?
    • Should big-time college athletes be paid?
    • When did bookmakers start using movable type?
    • Why was the Great Wall of China built?
    • How does the human brain create, store, and retrieve memories?

    You may know the answers to these questions off the top of your head. If you are like most people, however, you find answers to tough questions like these by searching the Internet, visiting a library, or asking others for information. To put it simply, you perform research.

    Whether or not you realize it, you probably already perform research in your everyday life.

    When your boss, your instructor, or a family member asks you a question that you don’t 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. In this chapter, you will learn more about each step. By developing your research writing skills, you will prepare yourself to answer challenging questions.

    Sometimes you perform research simply to satisfy your own curiosity. Once you find the answer to your research question, your search may be over, or it may lead to more in-depth research about that topic or about another topic.

    Other times, you want to communicate what you have learned to your peers, your family, your teachers, or even the editors of magazines, newspapers, or journals. In your personal life, you might simply discuss the topic with your friends. In more formal situations, such as in business and school, you communicate your findings in writing or in a presentation.

    There are differences between a report and research:


    A report relays the results of your research in an organized manner. A report is written from the perspective of someone who already knows the answers.


    A research project presents a research question and answers that question through sources. It is written from the perspective of someone who seeks answers.

    A report may simply relay the results of your research in an organized manner. In contrast, a research project presents a research question and answers that question through the sources which led you to that answer.

    In a research paper, you use facts, interpretations, and opinions you encounter in your research to create a narrative and support an argument (an answer to your research question) about your topic.

    A student in an art history course might write a research paper about an artist's work or an aesthetic movement. A student in a psychology course might present on findings about current research in childhood development.

    No matter what field of study you pursue, you will most likely be asked to compose a research project in your college degree program and to apply the skills of research and writing in your career. For similar reasons as professionals, students do research to answer specific questions, to share their findings with others, to increase their understanding of challenging topics, and to strengthen their analytical skills.

    Having to complete a research project may feel intimidating at first. After all, researching and composing a large project requires a lot of time, effort, and organization. However, its challenges have rewards. The research process allows you to gain expertise on a topic of your choice.

    The writing process helps you to remember what you learned, to understand it on a deeper level, and to develop expertise. Thus writing a research paper can be a great opportunity to explore a question and topic that particularly interests you and to grow as a person.

    Screen Shot 2019-11-27 at 10.11.55 AM.pngKnowing how to compose a good research project is a valuable skill that will serve you well throughout your career. For example, laboratory technicians and information technology professionals do research to learn about the latest technological developments in their fields. A small business owner may conduct research to learn about the latest trends in his or her industry. A freelance writer will need to research his or her topics to write informed, up-to-date articles. Whether you are developing a new product, studying the best way to perform a procedure, discovering the challenges and opportunities in your field of employment, or learning about how to find a job, you will use research techniques to guide your exploration Because effective communication is essential to any company, employers seek to hire people who can write clearly and professionally.

    Exercise: Free Writing about Research

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    1. Identify the job of your dreams.
    2. Now, freewrite about ways in which strong researching, organizing, writing, and critical thinking skills could help you succeed at your dream job.
    3. Finally, share some of your ideas with a partner or in class discussion. Are there more ways to apply research to that job than you had thought of initially?

    Process Overview

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    How does a research paper grow from a folder of notes to a polished final draft? No two projects are identical, and no two paths to completion are identical. That said, most research projects go through a set of stages, often repeating stages such a prewriting, drafting, writing from sources, and revising, in a recursive pattern.

    Here is an example of what that pattern often looks like in a real-life research project, with the stages described in detail the infographic below:

    The Recursive Process

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    You probably noticed that the process started repeating and fell out of order, right? Well, that's research (and writing in general)! It's a messy, sometimes confusing, but almost always rewarding journey, and if you dive into the process with an open mind, you'll probably end up with some great and interesting results.

    Defining a Topic

    Depending on your specific professor's assignment directions, you may get to choose your topic completely, you may get to choose a topic within a frame, or you may get to choose a topic from a list provided by the professor.

    To narrow the focus of your topic, brainstorm using prewriting techniques, as well as any guidance or texts given by your instructor. Once you're sure of your topic, formulate a specific research question (a broad, open-ended question) or set of questions that will guide your research. Your research will help you answer the question or answer another question that you realize is more interesting or useful.

    Planning and Scheduling

    Before you start researching your topic, take time to plan your researching and writing schedule. Research projects can take days, weeks, or even months to complete. Creating a schedule is a good way to ensure that you do not end up being overwhelmed by all the work you have to do as the deadline approaches.

    During this step of the process, it is also a good idea to plan the resources and organizational tools you will use to keep yourself on track throughout the project. Flowcharts, calendars, and checklists can all help you stick to your schedule.

    Conducting Research: Determining and Gathering the Right Kinds of 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. However, you should pay close attention to instructions; instructors often specify what kinds of sources they require for research papers.

    Many will instruct you to only use academic / scholarly (peer-reviewed) sources, as those are the sources most valued in academia. For some assignments, your sources might include primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

    1. Primary sources provide firsthand information or raw data. For example, surveys, in-person interviews, historical documents, works of art, and works of literature are primary sources.
    2. Secondary sources -- such as biographies, literary reviews, or news articles--include some analysis or interpretation of the information presented.
    3. Tertiary sources--such as dictionaries, sourcebooks, encyclopedias, and some textbooks--repackage, reorganize, abstract, or compile information. They are usually not referenced to a specific author.

    As you conduct research, you should take detailed, careful notes about your discoveries. This is writing, and it's an important part of the process, even if it's just notes at this point. Remember: you understand what you're reading by engaging with the material. You need to read predatorily and take notes strategically. You should also evaluate the reliability of each source you find, especially sources that are not peer-reviewed. Just because it exists doesn't mean it's a good source.

    Organizing Your Research and Ideas, Abstracting From Materials, Writing

    As you're beginning to learn about your topic, you'll likely feel overwhelmed by all of the information. That's normal. Here is what will help: writing as you're researching. This doesn't have to be polished writing. What's important is that you write throughout the process, constantly cycling through the recursive process.

    When your research is complete, you will therefore have more material than you need, and you'll then be able to organize your findings and decide which sources to cite in your paper. 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 paper.

    You may decide to adjust your thesis or conduct additional research to ensure that your thesis is well supported. The steps of a research project often overlap and repeat. They are not sequential or separate from each other.

    Drafting Your Project

    Now you are ready to compile your research findings, your notes, and other research with your critical analysis of the results in a first rough draft. This will likely be a messy draft, and that's OK.

    The idea at this stage is to start to draw all of your thoughts and new-found expertise into a somewhat cohesive whole. You can always revise later. Your goal in almost any research project is to find out the answer to your research question. You will incorporate source materials into your paper and discuss each source thoughtfully in relation to your thesis (the answer to that question) or purpose statement.

    It is important to pay close attention to standard conventions for citing sources in order to avoid plagiarism, which is the practice of using someone else's words without acknowledging the source. Later in this chapter, you will learn how to incorporate sources in your project and avoid some of the most common pitfalls of attributing information.

    Revising and Editing Your Project

    If you commit to the process of drafting a little every day and drafting as you research, you'll find that the project will get less messy as you begin to understand how the new information you know helps you understand the topic and your questions about it.

    You might reorganize your paper's structure or revise for unity and cohesion, ensuring that each element in your paper smoothly and logically flows into the next. You will also make sure that your paper uses an appropriate and consistent tone.

    Once you feel confident in the strength of your writing, you will edit your paper 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 and well-written project of which you can be proud.

    A Final Note

    Writing a good research project takes time, thought, and effort. Although this assignment is challenging, it is manageable if you commit to the process: write to understand what you want to know (answer your research questions), write as you learn more (understand your research), and write to share what you know (share that expertise with your audience). This will help you develop a thoughtful, informative, well-supported research project.

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