The 6 Key Steps to Writing a Successful Research Paper
Writing a paper intended for publication in an academic journal is a challenging task that requires time, effort, patience, and passion. The process can feel endless and overwhelming. A lot of thought, planning, and research goes into writing an academic article and getting it published—from choosing a journal with the right scope and understanding the expectations of its readership to keeping your message focused and backing your claims with evidence.
Since academic journals have high standards, your paper won’t be judged only on the basis of your research, methodology, and findings but also its writing and structure. This means a journal may still reject your work even if the research is top-notch and the findings remarkable (although it will likely invite you to resubmit your paper after polishing it). Does the information flow naturally? Is it easy to follow and understand? Are there any gaps in the research? Are there typos or awkward sentences that distract from the content? Try to put yourself in a reader’s shoes and ask yourself these questions.
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If you’re only just starting, let’s take a look at the key steps to writing a successful research paper.
1. Give your paper a catchy title
The title is usually the first thing an editor or a reader will see, so you want to make it interesting and original. It has to be specific and accurate enough to let them know what the paper is about, but you want to keep it as short and concise as possible—the key is striking the right balance.
Many academic papers feature a creative catchphrase followed by a colon and a succinct description of the research topic—this is a good way to make your title engaging, concise, and specific all at once. Also, be sure it includes some major keywords that directly reference your research as this will improve its ranking post-publication.
2. Write a compelling abstract
A clear, well-written abstract is absolutely crucial if you want to see your paper published in an academic journal. The abstract, a short summary that lets readers know what they can expect to find in your article, presents the thesis, methodology, and conclusions. Since it gives journal editors and the audience their first taste of your writing, it must be engaging, compelling, informative, and entirely error-free.
Your abstract will also represent your paper in most academic indexes, making it one of the very few elements a prospective reader has to judge whether your paper is worth reading. Therefore, a lackluster abstract simply won’t do.
3. Use high-ranking keywords
Aside from an abstract, most journals require from authors a list of keywords along with a manuscript. Keywords are essential for indexing papers post-publication and optimizing search engine results, so choose what can get you more hits. Try to stay away from keywords that are too broad, or you’ll get lost in the shuffle—it’s another game of balance. Instead, select the terms you use the most within your paper and the words you would type into a search bar if you were trying to find your own article in an academic database.
If you’re struggling to come up with the best keywords, plug a few into some academic databases and see how similar the papers that come up are to yours. You may also want to include multiple spellings of the same term or multiple terms for the same concept, depending on what your keywords are.
4. Make your writing clear and concise
Clarity is key when writing an academic paper, so use the clearest language possible to explain your concepts, even if they’re complex. Sometimes, esoteric vocabulary is necessary for a precise explanation, and that’s fine, but it’s a good idea to provide a clear definition of any technical terms you use frequently in your paper. You want your text to be easy to read and understand, so ask yourself if you’re writing for a general or a specialist audience.
Knowing who will be reading your paper can help you determine the type of vocabulary and language to use. Even if your target audience already understands the context of your research, describe in detail your methodology and approach—this will ensure your readers understand how you drew your conclusions and may even serve as inspiration for fellow scholars pursuing similar research. Always aim for clear, concise writing that’s engaging and to the point. Even if your audience is well-versed in your topic, it’ll still be more enjoyable for them to read your work if it’s presented in clean, crisp language.
5. Follow a simple structure
Your paper should follow a clear, simple structure—leave novelty and creativity for your research. Start with an introduction that states your topic and thesis and contextualizes your argument. Provide a solid overview of the context even if your target readers are experts as it’s important to set the stage for the paper. Your introduction is also your chance to hook the reader and make them want to learn more, so make it informative and intriguing; otherwise, they may not be willing to invest more time in your paper.
Then come your main arguments and evidence. This is the bulk of your paper, and the progression of ideas within this section is critical to crafting high-quality, easily digestible writing. Every study is different, so the way you structure this section will depend on the nature of your research—take some time to reflect on the clearest and most logical way to present your research and findings.
Wrap things up with your conclusion, where you can interpret your results and summarize the concepts presented in the main body of your paper. We suggest ordering the information in the conclusion from most to least important. Don’t introduce any new concepts in this section.
6. Include references and acknowledgments
Before you submit your article, double-check the journal’s style guide and citation requirements and always use a balanced mix of references that are current (ideally no more than 10 years old, but you can exercise discretion) and relevant (strongly related to your topic) to back up your theories and conclusions.
References and citations also let readers know how your paper fits into the existing body of work, why it’s important, and what sets it apart, so be very selective about the citations you include. When you find the right citations to use, make sure you embed them into your text appropriately, using the conventions of the style guide your journal prefers.
Academia is all about sharing knowledge and learning from past lessons and findings, so acknowledging the research that aided your work is just good practice. Your acknowledgments section is also an opportunity to thank any individuals or institutions that made your research possible or somehow contributed to your work.
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