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November isn’t just a month to write that novel you’ve been meaning to (for #NaNoWriMo)—it’s also time to finally get that bibliography together, file away that chapter, or dive into your upcoming term paper. November is #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), too!

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We’ve gathered a few helpful tips for your scholarly writing—with academic citations of course.

1. Before You Write—Read

The best practice before writing a research paper? Doing your reading. Finding high quality sources is foundational to any academic paper. Browse scholarly journals (maybe on, say, JSTOR?) and books from university and scholarly presses. Obviously your school library is a major resource here, and research librarians from within your discipline are great people to talk to at the beginning of a project.

2. Gather Your Sources

Look at your sources, then look at your sources’ sources. Great academic writing is often a product of what came before it. A good source will have clues in its bibliography for finding similarly helpful works. Authority can be tricky to determine, especially now. A study from 2009 found that students today have a harder time parsing the trustworthiness of sources, especially sources they find online. So pay close attention to the information surrounding a source, including its date, author, publisher, and general consistency. Who wrote your sources? When and why?

3. Draft an Outline

That hamburger chart you learned in high school? Still a pretty good model. An outline helps organize your thoughts, and see your writing holistically. This can be formal or informal, but it usually helps to have some kind of outline. A study in four disciplines (history, biology, psychology, and business) found that outlines helped organize students’ thoughts and clarify their papers’ structure.

4. Dive into the Archives

Primary sources, as your history professor will tell you, are key. Archives are incredible troves of firsthand research materials, special collections, and often house important primary documents after their owners and authors pass away. See if your school has any special collections related to your topic. A research librarian will know. You may also want to familiarize yourself with some of the ethical issues in archival research in this piece from College Composition and Communication.

5. Create a Thesis—and Defend it

A research paper isn’t a book report. It’s not a summary of the existing research, though it does do some summarizing. It takes a stance. It’s supposed to be argumentative in one way or another. It answers that famous question “So what?” In this piece from College English, composition scholar Margaret Kantz digs into teaching persuasive writing.

6. Keep it Simple

With some exceptions, academic writing rewards clarity, concision, and confidence. This doesn’t mean you have to water your ideas down. Try to say something complicated—but put it plainly. Scholar Stanley Fish outlines some issues regarding clarity, interpretation, and originality in this philosophical essay from Critical Inquiry. In it, Fish reminds that “[a] sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one.”

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JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 2009), pp. 6-28
Wiley on behalf of the International Literacy Association
Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), pp. 390-421
National Council of Teachers of English
College English, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan., 1990), pp. 74-91
National Council of Teachers of English
College Composition and Communication, Vol. 64, No. 1, Research Methodologies (September 2012), pp. 59-81
National Council of Teachers of English
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 625-644
The University of Chicago Press