A Guide to Writing a Research Paper

This handbook hopes to assist students studying international affairs, political science, and history. Students of political science should focus their research papers on identifying a theoretical puzzle (e.g., a case that cannot be explained by an existing theory, or that illustrates conflicts between two competing theories) and solve it. Policy-oriented political science students should center their research papers on identifying a significant policy issue; analyze it, and present recommendations. Cultural history students approach the study of world politics by examining not only history and politics but also literature and film as artistic expressions interpreting history. Why don’t we begin thinking about your research paper as your opportunity to improve by setting your goals: write out what your weaknesses are in your writing and add what are your strengths. Secondly, state your goals in improving writing and how you will meet your goals. Lastly, check out your professor’s comments and restate your goals: what goals have you met and which still need to be met. Build on your writing skills by being very aware of your weaknesses and your strengths. Remember you are not alone: consult GWU’s The Writing Center at GWU  (202-994-3765) and WID Studio.

All good writing starts with analytical reading. When you start reading a book or viewing a film, immediately make connections, stretch your imagination, ask questions, and anticipate conclusions. By becoming an active reader your mind will be analyzing the information simultaneously as you experience the journal article, book or film. Evaluating sources is a skill perfected over several years; this handbook offers ways to assess texts quickly.

Structuring and writing research papers can be challenging and in the end rewarding because it is your unique contribution to understanding a body of texts, a series of historical events, and cultural expressions in film, art, and literature. Your personal voice and your particular interpretation will intrigue your readers if your thesis is clearly argued. Creating Writing Strategies including clustering ideas, drawing diagrams, and planning a “road map” will help you visualize the stages that you need to map out to build a strong paper. Research papers always start with disparate ideas, indiscriminate notions, and false starts. This process is necessary to think through your strategy. Harnessing and structuring your random ideas is essential at the beginning to ensure solid results in your line of argument.

An initial draft helps you generate ideas, sketch a plan, and build on your first impressions. Revision and more revision will ensure that your case is chiseled into a fine paper with clear objectives and well-argued beliefs. This is perhaps the most essential piece to receiving high grades. If you write your paper the night before it is due, you will not allow time to revise. Instead, plan to write your initial draft two weeks before it is due. You will have time to rewrite the draft at least twice. Comparing each draft should convince you to always make time to write three drafts. Formatting your paper appropriately to your professor’s taste is crucial. Routinely papers follow this format: a Title Page, after which each page is numbered consecutively; pages are double-spaced with left one-inch margins at top, bottom, and sides.

Citations add depth to your opinions and will substantiate them. A variety of sources always makes a paper interesting to read and intensifies your argument. The risk that all writers confront is over use of quoting from secondary texts. The overuse of citations buries your personal voice and your particular point of view.

Reading Analytically

It is often possible to confuse or understand partially what a scholar, journalist, or author is trying to argue. This is the first wrong step towards a weak paper. In evaluating a scholarly argument, you are making claims about what an author has stated. You do not have the freedom to put arguments in authors’ mouths; you must be able to back up every claim you make about an author’s argument through reference to the text. This exercise in analyzing arguments intends to strengthen your skills in developing your own argumentation.

Read an article in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, American Political Science Review, or Foreign Affairs and start to record your thoughts:

  • What is the author’s argument?
  • What is the thesis question?
  • What are the premises underlying it?
  • What is the thesis?
  • What is the “road map” or the individual points the author will have to prove to make the thesis be true?
  • What assumptions has the author made which remain unaddressed?
  • What arguments does the author make that may be challenged?
  • Premises underlying thesis question.
  • Individual points of the argument in the “road map,” or body of the work.
  • If you wanted to challenge this author, how would you go about it?
  • Choose one point — either a premise underlying the thesis question, or a part of the author’s “road map.”
  • What kind of primary source evidence would you be looking for to “test” this point? What kinds of primary source evidence would tend to support the author? What kinds would undermine the author’s argument?
  • The last step would be to go to the primary source evidence itself, and see what you find.

Exercise for reading analytically

Read the excerpt below taken from the first issue of Foreign Affairs for 2009 and write out your questions and answers (the entire article is online):

Beyond Iraq

A New U.S. Strategy for the Middle East

Richard N. Haass and Martin Indyk

Summary:  To be successful in the Middle East, the Obama administration will need to move beyond Iraq, find ways to deal constructively with Iran, and forge a final-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

On taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama will face a series of critical, complex, and interrelated challenges in the Middle East demanding urgent attention: an Iraq experiencing a fragile lull in violence that is nonetheless straining the U.S. military, an Iran approaching the nuclear threshold, a faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace process, weak governments in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories challenged by strong militant Islamist groups, and a U.S. position weakened by years of failure and drift. He will also discover that time is working against him.

For six years, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been dominated by Iraq. This need not, and should not, continue. The Obama administration will be able to gradually reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, limit their combat role, and increasingly shift responsibility to Iraqi forces. The drawdown will have to be executed carefully and deliberately, however, so as not to risk undoing recent progress.

The improved situation in Iraq will allow the new administration to shift its focus to Iran, where the clock is ticking on a dangerous and destabilizing nuclear program. Obama should offer direct official engagement with the Iranian government, without preconditions, along with other incentives in an attempt to turn Tehran away from developing the capacity to rapidly produce substantial amounts of nuclear-weapons-grade fuel. At the same time, he should lay the groundwork for an international effort to impose harsher sanctions on Iran if it proves unwilling to change course.

Preventive military action against Iran by either the United States or Israel is an unattractive option, given its risks and costs. But it needs to be examined carefully as a last-ditch alternative to the dangers of living with an Iranian bomb. To increase Israel’s tolerance for extended diplomatic engagement, the U.S. government should bolster Israel’s deterrent capabilities by providing an enhanced anti-ballistic-missile defense capability and a nuclear guarantee.

The U.S. president should also spend capital trying to promote peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, in particular Syria. Damascus is currently allied with Tehran, and an Israeli-Syrian deal would weaken Iran’s regional influence, reduce external support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and improve the prospects for stability in Lebanon. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, there is an urgent need for a diplomatic effort to achieve a two-state solution while it is still feasible. Although divisions on both sides and the questionable ability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to control any newly acquired territory make a sustainable peace agreement unlikely for the moment, these factors argue not for abandoning the issue but rather for devoting substantial time and effort now to creating the conditions that would help diplomacy succeed later. What all these initiatives have in common is a renewed emphasis on diplomacy as a tool of U.S. national security policy, since the United States can no longer achieve its objectives without the backing of its regional allies as well as China, Europe, and Russia.

Some might argue that these efforts are not worth it, that the Bush administration paid too much attention to and invested too much American blood and treasure in an ill-advised attempt to transform the Middle East and that the Obama administration should focus its attention at home or elsewhere abroad. But such arguments underestimate the Middle East’s ability to force itself onto the U.S. president’s agenda regardless of other plans. Put simply, what happens in the Middle East will not stay in the Middle East. From terrorism to nuclear proliferation to energy security, managing contemporary global challenges requires managing the Middle East.

Three easy questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is there a “valid” argument: an argument structured such that, given that the premises are correct, the conclusion must be correct. How do the authors construct their argument, dissect paragraph by paragraph their line of debate.
  2. What would a scholar from Egypt write on this subject and perhaps a scholar from Iran. Can you now come up with a counter argument?
  3. What is the “road map” for this paper? That is, what is the chain of reasoning this paper must pursue if it is to demonstrate the veracity of its thesis?

Good reading is about asking questions of your sources. Keep the following in mind when reading primary sources. Even if you believe you can’t arrive at the answers, imagining possible answers will aid your comprehension. Reading primary sources requires that you use your historical imagination. This process is all about your willingness and ability to ask questions of the material, imagine possible answers, and explain your reasoning. Reading a primary source may seem simple but you would be surprised how easy it is to become distracted, unfocused, and when your mind wonders you lose the impact of the thesis. This also happens when we sit at our computers to write, but with a strong foundation and a road map, it should be easier to compose.

Professor Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College has drawn up a useful evaluating system when reading primary sources:

  • Purpose of the author in preparing the document
  • Argument and strategy she or he uses to achieve those goals
  • Presuppositions and values (in the text, and our own)
  • Epistemology (evaluating truth content)
  • Relate to other texts (compare and contrast)


  • Who is the author and what is her or his place in society (explain why you are justified in thinking so)? What could or might it be, based on the text, and why?
  • Why did the author prepare the document? What was the occasion for its creation?
  • What is at stake for the author in this text? Why do you think she or he wrote it? What evidence in the text tells you this?
  • Does the author have a thesis? What — in one sentence — is that thesis?


  • What is the text trying to do? How does the text make its case? What is its strategy for accomplishing its goal? How does it carry out this strategy?
  • What is the intended audience of the text? How might this influence its rhetorical strategy? Cite specific examples.
  • What arguments or concerns do the author respond to that are not clearly stated? Provide at least one example of a point at which the author seems to be refuting a position never clearly stated. Explain what you think this position may be in detail, and why you think it.
  • Do you think the author is credible and reliable? Use at least one specific example to explain why. Make sure to explain the principle of rhetoric or logic that makes this passage credible.


  • How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and values of our age? Offer two specific examples.
  • What presumptions and preconceptions do we as readers bring to bear on this text? For instance, what portions of the text might we find objectionable, but which contemporaries might have found acceptable. State the values we hold on that subject, and the values expressed in the text. Cite at least one specific example.
  • How might the difference between our values and the values of the author influence the way we understand the text? Explain how such a difference in values might lead us to miss-interpret the text, or understand it in a way contemporaries would not have. Offer at least one specific example.


  • How might this text support one of the arguments found in secondary sources we’ve read? Choose a paragraph anywhere in a secondary source we’ve read, state where this text might be an appropriate footnote (cite page and paragraph), and explain why.
  • What kinds of information does this text reveal that it does not seem concerned with revealing? (In other words, what does it tell us without knowing it’s telling us?)
  • Offer one claim from the text which is the author’s interpretation. Now offer one example of a historical “fact” (something that is absolutely indisputable) that we can learn from this text (this need not be the author’s words).
  • Relate: Now choose another of the readings, and compare the two, answering these questions:
  • What patterns or ideas are repeated throughout the readings?
  • What major differences appear in them?
  • Which do you find more reliable and credible?

As you can begin to see, once you start thinking about it, one simple question can lead to a huge chain of questions. Remember, it is always better to keep asking questions you think you cannot answer than to stop asking questions because you think you cannot answer them. But this can only happen when you know enough about your subject to know how to push your questioning, and this depends on reading and understanding the assigned material.

Evaluating Sources

Reading secondary historical sources is a skill which is honed over years of practice and becomes second nature after a while. Reading academic material well is an active process and you’ll find success reading even the most difficult material if you can master these skills. The key here is taking the time and energy to engage the material — to think through it and to connect it to other material you have covered. A good idea is to keep a journal recording your ideas about a variety of sources to see later if there are connections among them.

How to read a book

You can quickly size up a volume to judge if it is indeed a book that you need to read fully. Read and define the title. Think about what the title promises for the book; look at the table of contents; read the foreword and introduction (if an article, read the first paragraph or two). Read the conclusion or epilogue if there is one (if it is an article, read the last one or two paragraphs). After all this, ask yourself what the author’s thesis might be. How has the argument been structured?

The same idea holds for reading chapters quickly: read the first and last paragraph of each chapter. After doing this and taking the step outlined above, you should have a good idea of the book’s major themes and arguments. Good topic sentences in each paragraph will tell you what the paragraph is about. Read actively and just take notes when necessary; avoid taking copious notes on minor details. Remember to record your gut reactions to the text and ask: What surprised you? What seemed particularly insightful? What seems suspect? What reinforces or counters points made in other readings? This kind of note taking will keep your reading active, and actually will help you remember the contents of the piece better than otherwise.

To better write your own research paper it is very useful to dissect an author’s work asking the following: How has the author structured her work? How would you briefly outline it? Why might she have employed this structure? What historical argument does the structure employ? After identifying the thesis, ask yourself in what ways the structure of the work enhances or detracts from the thesis. How does the author set about to make her or his case? What about the structure of the work makes it convincing?

A thesis is not just a statement of opinion, or a belief, or a thought. It is an argument and therefore it is subject to evaluation and analysis. Is it a good argument? How is the big argument (the thesis) structured into little arguments? Are these little arguments constructed well? Is the reasoning valid? Does the evidence support the conclusions? Has the author used invalid or incorrect logic? Is she relying on incorrect premises? What broad, unexamined assumptions seem to underlay the author’s argument? Are these correct? This part of the evaluation process asks you not for your opinion, but to evaluate the logic of the argument.
Finally, when you have recorded your thoughts, mapped out the author’s points sustaining the thesis argument, now need to come to a conclusion: Where is the author’s argument weak or vulnerable? Where is the evidence thin? What other interpretations of the author’s evidence is possible? At what points is the author’s logic suspect? If the author’s case is weak, what is the significance of this for the argument as a whole?

If you read actively, record your opinions, and map out arguments you are creating your own research paper as you are analyzing. Eventually you will create your own voice and style through this method.

Writing Strategies

Perhaps the most important message to understand is that you should start thinking about possible theses from the very start of your paper preparation, but you need to examine your primary sources before you can develop a strong thesis. It is impossible to develop a good thesis without already having begun to analyze the primary sources which supply your evidence. How can you know what is even possible to argue if you haven’t looked closely at your data?

Good writing is a process of continually evaluating your work — of constantly asking yourself if your evidence and analysis supports your thesis. Remember, the thesis is not the starting point of your exploration, but the result of it.

Writing exercises — to flush out all your ideas and then to reduce them to the essentials — are useful for structuring your paper. Making lists of your ideas, free writing in prose about your thesis, and clustering relationships among your ideas, can all be helpful in the first phase. Subdividing your subject and restricting your purpose will help you narrow your thesis.


  • Introduce the problem
  • Define key terms
  • State the thesis
  • Stems from good question
  • Tentative answer is “hypothesis”
  • Refine hypothesis into thesis


  • How is the paper organized?
  • Paragraphs
  • Topic sentence (mini-thesis)
  • Argument supporting topic sentence
  • Transition to next mini-thesis
  • Arguing in paragraphs
  • Mini-thesis
  • Evidence
  • Analysis (what does evidence support?)


  • Re-state the thesis
  • Significance of thesis (why should we care about the problem?)

The introduction is usually one paragraph, or perhaps two in a paper of eight pages or more. Its purpose is to: (1) set out the problem to be discussed; (2) define key terms that will be used in that discussion; (3) outline the structure of the argument; (4) CLEARLY STATE THE THESIS.

Quickly establish the issue your paper confronts. Where and when are we? What are we examining? It is especially important to clearly define the limits of your exploration. Tell the reader how interested you are in the subject, set a tone conveying that the topic is of vital concern. Some writers grab the reader by starting with an example, a quotation, a statistic, or a complaint. This opening theme must run through your paper so that it unifies your paper.

Provide a clear road map of your argument: Let your reader know where you are headed, how you plan to substantiate your thesis but without giving away your best ideas. If, for instance, your paper breaks down into political, cultural, and social components, announce this to your reader so she will know what to expect.

The last function of the introduction is to present your thesis. The thesis is the central idea around which you construct the rest of your paper. The best theses are good precisely because the questions they answer are significant, complex, and original. The thesis statement is the one-sentence version of your argument. A good thesis will require you to introduce the gist of the thesis itself without revealing your conclusion.

The body takes up several pages, and constitutes the bulk of your paper. Here is where you argue your thesis. The content of this section largely will depend on your thesis, and what it requires you to argue. Think to yourself, “What do I need to support this argument?” If you find yourself unable to answer, consult your analyses of secondary texts to review how authors construct their body. You may not have an interesting enough thesis.

The general movement in the body is from the general to the specific. Start with general statements and then move on to specific statements which support your general statement. Your paper is built on paragraphs. Each paragraph should be a minimum of four sentences and not exceed 10. The first sentence of each paragraph is called the “topic sentence.” The topic sentence introduces what the paragraph will be about similar to a mini-thesis. You may have several mini-theses in your paper supporting your general thesis.

When you add support from secondary texts remember that you should not merely quote or paraphrase from the raw data but you need to interpret and analyze the quoted material. This is especially true of quotes. Never just plop a quote in and expect it to be clear to the reader how it supports the mini-thesis. Explain how it supports the point you are making.

The body of the paper must flow from one idea to the next and transitions from one paragraph to the next must be clear. This linking of ideas is accomplished through transitional phrases. There are transitions between paragraphs, and transitions within paragraphs. Often, but not always, the last sentence of a paragraph begins to guide the reader to the next idea. It is often a good idea to end paragraphs with a sentence summing-up your findings.

As you structure the body, your scholarly arguments marshal facts — and analyze those facts — in a fashion intended to persuade the reader through reason. The most important technique for doing this is to anticipate the counter-arguments your argument is likely to receive. You must constantly ask yourself, what arguments which counter my thesis make sense.

Your conclusion is usually one paragraph long, and briefly recapitulates your thesis, pulling all your arguments together. The first sentence of the concluding paragraph is a clear, specific re-statement of the thesis. The conclusion should do more than simply re-state the argument. It also suggests why the argument is important in the bigger scheme of things, or suggests avenues for further research, or raises a bigger question.

Revision, Revision, Revision

Write first draft: Even if you haven’t finished all your research but you feel ready to start writing a first draft, read over your clustering notes, your sketch of how to execute the paper and arrange your notes according to your outline. Your paragraphs should correspond to your outline, and each should advance your goal of supporting your hypothesis. A first draft will challenge you to articulate ideas that have been floating around in your head. As you start writing you will probably realize that what you thought were simple ideas are actually complex, and are more difficult to express than you expected. That is normal.

Let your paper sit for awhile, two or three days. As the researcher and writer, you have been too close to your work. You might want to change some of the original organization, or delete parts which are tangential or insignificant to your main argument. You may also need to do some additional research and strengthen your arguments. Revise your argument first to tighten the thesis and your “road map” lining up all the evidence. Reduce your evidence to only the relevant pieces and strengthen your argument by including the most salient of citations.

Think about how you have arranged the arguments in your paper. Does the paper’s organization offer the most effective arrangement of your ideas and evidence to support the theme? Reread the topic sentence for each paragraph. Does the sentence make your point and does the information in the paragraph support it? Be sure that you have placed your topic in its historical context, preferably in the first few pages of the paper.

Locate your argument among those offered in the secondary historical works which you have read. At this point, you should have some idea of how your approach/theme adds to the body of historical literature on your topic. Think about your introduction and conclusion. Remember that these are crucial to the paper and you should take some time when writing them. The introduction not only interests the reader in getting beyond the first few pages but it also presents the focus of your argument. The conclusion is your chance to make a lasting impression on your audience; take advantage of it!

The final revision of your paper should include a check of overall organization, style and composition, spelling, proof of thesis, and format (arrangement of title page, pagination, endnotes if applicable, bibliography, citation form.) Scrutinize your words, sentences, and paragraphs. Look at the VERBS are they active (not passive)? Are there a variety of verbs, if not use the thesaurus and empower your prose by strong verbs. REDUCE the use of the verb to be. Wordy sentences weaken your thesis, take out the “fat”: prepositional phrases (change to gerunds –ing); count the number of prepositions in a sentence and limit to two. Check on misplaced and dangling modifiers if you don’t know what this means, look it up. Longer sentences can be reduced to several sentences or with the use of semicolons. Lastly, literally check the logic of the transitions among paragraphs. Do you find a paragraph not making sense and not linking up to the paragraph above and below it?

Very important to your revising is to read your paper out loud and listen to it. Does it flow well? What do you hear that is superfluous? Is the logic sound and is the thesis clear? What is unessential weakens your thesis, so eliminate.

The best known authors follow this advice: Throughout the paper writing process, the most important and challenging task will be to constantly edit and revise your work.

Formatting Your Paper

Use the MLA-Chicago style to format your research paper and consult the following:

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Manual to Writing in History, 3rd ed.

Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th ed.

Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers, 3rd ed. (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

Quotations, footnotes, and bibliographies: Small matters of style, such as where footnote numbers are placed, the use of commas, or how indenting works, are important. You will be learning and using citation styles for the rest of your life; it is crucial that you become proficient in following them closely. Citations

A citation is the part of your paper that tells your reader where your source information came from. This is one of the most important elements to your paper. In order to evaluate your argument, your reader must be able to consult the same sources you used. Proper citing is crucial to making a credible and persuasive argument.. Citations in history papers can take the form of footnotes or endnotes. History papers should not use the parenthetic citation style common to literature and social science papers. These do not perform the other function of footnotes and endnotes, which is to provide space to clarify your use of complex data or arguments, expand on points you believe do not merit lengthy consideration in the body of your text, and to directly address the arguments of other historians.

Each time you quote a work by another author, or use the ideas of another author, you should indicate the source with a footnote. A footnote is indicated in the text of your paper by a small Arabic numeral written in superscript. Each new footnote gets a new number (increment by one). The number refers to a note number at the bottom of the page (or following the text of the paper, if you are using endnotes). This note contains the citation information for the materials you are referencing. For examples of footnotes in action, consult Rampolla (“Quoting and Documenting Sources”).

Either footnotes or endnotes are fine. Most history books are now produced using endnotes, which are commonly thought to provide cleaner looking pages. Most history professors, however, prefer footnotes, so they can quickly check sources. Especially if you have a computer word-processor, which makes the task easy, you should try to use footnotes.

Paraphrase or quote your sources or do both; but do only one at a time. You either paraphrase or quote, but do nothing in between. To paraphrase a source (or part of a source) is to reproduce it in words and word orders substantially different from the original. When you paraphrase well, you keep the sense of the original but change the language, retaining some key words, of course, but otherwise using your own words and your own sentence patterns. As a rough guide, if you copy more than three words in a row from a source, these words should be in quotation marks.

To quote a source (or part of a source) is to reproduce it exactly. When you quote well, you keep both the sense and language of the original, retaining its punctuation, its capitalization, its type face (roman or italic), and its spelling (indeed, even its misspelling).

Remember to include a source citation every time you use the ideas or words of another author, either directly (through quotation) or indirectly (through paraphrase). The only exception is common factual knowledge of the variety found in encyclopedia. The easiest and most important rule to remember is: when in doubt, it is better to cite a source than to not cite a source. In avoiding plagiarism, it is always wiser to choose more rather than less information.

Enjoy researching your paper and enjoy writing it. Professors grade students on their effort, their ability to improve during the semester, and on their willingness to follow directions. GOOD LUCK THIS SEMESTER.

Online guides for citing sources:

Guides for citing standard electronic sources