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How to Write a Research Paper MLA Style

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

How do you write a research paper in MLA format?

How do you write a research paper in MLA format?

Article Summary

  1. Choose a research question
  2. Develope a plan for your paper
  3. Find sources
  4. Use argument strategies
  5. Make an outline

How to Choose a Topic

  1. Look at a newspaper or news website for a current event that interests you.
  2. Make a list of things you really care about. What would you like to know more about?
  3. Ask some friends what they are interested in knowing more about.
  4. Think about your pet peeves or things that irritate you. Do you have something you wish worked better? You can research ideas for that.
  5. Do you wonder if something is really true or not? That could be the basis for a fact essay. You can research what other people say.
  6. Have you pondered what caused some trend or phenomenon? You can do a cause research essay looking for why something has happened.

Still stumped? Look at some of my Topic Idea lists.

Making Your Topic a Research Question

Now that you have chosen a topic area, you need to turn that topic into a question you can research. There are five basic types of Research Questions: fact, definition, cause, value and policy. Most issues or topics can actually be turned more than one kind of research question. For example, on the topic "Football Concussions", you could have these research questions:

  1. Fact: Do football players today have more concussions than in the past?
  2. Definition: What is the right way for a player with a concussion to be treated?
  3. Cause: What causes players to have concussions?
  4. Value: How important is it for football players to avoid concussions?
  5. Policy: How can football players in the NFL avoid the hazards of concussions?
Is training, equipment or recruiting making it possible for athletes to continue to break records? (fact).  What events should be added to the Olympics? (policy).

Is training, equipment or recruiting making it possible for athletes to continue to break records? (fact). What events should be added to the Olympics? (policy).

What Makes a Good Question?

An excellent research question needs to be:

  • Arguable: people don't agree on the answer.
  • Current: people are still interested in knowing the answer. Even better is if some current event has made people more aware of this issue.
  • Important: people would want to know the answer because it relates to something they care about.

Do you have to know the answer? Not yet. Often the most interesting questions to research are the ones which you are still undecided about yourself. Use the exercises below to help you chose a topic and develop argument strategies.

Examples of Good Research Topic Questions

Research QuestionType of ClaimWhere to Research

What is the best treatment for ADHD?


educational journals, medical research

What caused the recent Ebola outbreak?


Government publications, News Articles, Medical research

What is Terrorism?


Government sources, political science journals, historical journals

Is a College education worth it?


Employment statistics, government records, sociologist journals

Does using social media cause people to be more or less contected in relationships?


psychology and sociology journals

Topic Worksheet

The following questions help you to go through the process of thinking about your topic. Answer these questions on a piece of paper or a word document. These questions will help you formulate your question.

  1. Write out your Research Topic Idea. Write down what you already know about it.
  2. Try to write at least five questions about this Issue.
  3. What kinds of claims can be made from this question?
  • What fact questions?
  • What definition questions?
  • What cause questions?
  • What value questions?
  • What policy questions?

Look over the list of questions you've written. Which of these questions is most interesting to you? Write it down.

Scroll to Continue

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Test Your Research Question

Test out your Research Question by doing a quick Google Search. Although your instructor may not let you use the articles in Google for your paper, you can often get a good start on what sorts of reasons people have for believing your issue by searching there. Spend a few minutes getting some background information on your topic and finding out if people are interested in this question, if the question is current, and if it is arguable. Does your question fill all those requirements? You are ready for the next step.

Examine the Rhetorical Situation

During your research process, you will want to figure out who is interested in this question and what the different sides believe. You might already know what you think, but you might also find that as you research the question you change your mind or at least come to appreciate some of the ideas of the other points of view. Here are some questions to help you think about the rhetorical situation:

  1. Who is interested in this question? Why are they interested?
  2. What are the different points of view or positions people hold on this issue?
  3. Is there some common ground that all the sides believe in? What is it?
  4. What is the history of thinking about this question? Has there been a change in what people think is important about this issue?
  5. Who is writing about this question? What sorts of articles?
  6. What current events influence the way people think about this question?
  7. What are some search terms I can use to find evidence?

Finding Research for Your Paper

Now you are ready to find some articles to use in your paper. How do you do this?

Google: Sometimes you can find good articles on Google. Be sure you get the type of articles your instructor is asking for. If they want peer reviewed journals, you can use Google Scholar. If they don't mind you using news magazines and other less scholarly journals, you can use the regular Google search engine, being careful to only get sources that are also in print, or from government (gov) or University (edu) websites.

Library: If you have a school library, you can search there also. These days, you can often get all the articles you need by searching online while sitting around in your pajamas. Librarians are often available to help you in the library or even online through a virtual help desk. Be sure to take advantage of their help.

Prewriting: Evaluate Your Audience

Rogerian Argument technique seeks to get your audience to agree with you by focusing on what you have in common. Here are some questions for you to answer to help you understand your audience. The goal of thinking through these questions is to help you make sure you have all the evidence you will need to convince your audience to believe your position.

  1. What assumptions (bias, background, worldview, experiences) do I bring to this issue? How do these assumptions affect the way I feel about the issue?
  2. Who is the audience I want to convince?
  3. What does that audience believe about this issue? State their beliefs as clearly as you can.
  4. What do I want that audience to do, feel , or believe after they read my paper? (try to say this in one sentence)
  5. What assumptions does my audience have that might be different than mine?
  6. Where do we have common ground? What values or beliefs do we have that are the same?
  7. What might I need to prove to my audience to make them believe my ideas?

Argument Strategies and Why They Work

Type of ArgumentStrategyWhy it works


Use an emotional story

Draws the audience into the situation and make them put themselves into that place.


Draw attention to facts or statistics

These can prove your point


Take a tone of common sense, logical character. Or if appropriate, talk about your own position and personal experience to point out that you have a particular understanding or authority in this subject area.

This establishes point that you have a particular understanding or authority in this subject area


Draw on authorities like research or government sources

This makes your point seem more valid.


Address how the reader might be affected by the problem (example on health topic: finding weight going up, worried about blood pressure or cholesterol)

Creates interest and relates to reader.


Talk about common basic values we can all agree on (examples: good health, looking good, living a long time, eating healthy).

Establishes common ground and puts topic into larger picture.


Use a stair step approach in discussing claim: This is the best position (all vegetarianism). But if you can't do that then at least: be supportive of people who are vegetarians and/or try to include more vegetables in diet.

Shows you are reasonable and gives alternative ideas.


Admit weaknesses and limitations (example: (not everyone can eat a vegetarian diet or vegetarianism may be more expensive and not available for everyone)

Shows you are reasonable and subverts objections.


Say that you are willing to limit the proposal to certain circumstances (examples: we should encourage people do community gardens, or you can do a modified vegetarianism a few days a week or a few meals).

Narrows objections.


Admit your bias, assumptions and worldview.Compare that to the reader’s world view and try to draw them into seeing the situation your way.

Makes you seem authentic to audience.


Point out that you understand limits of the proposal but argue that it is better than other proposals

Urges reader to be realistic in expectations.


Note that it has been tried before but explain why you now believe it will work, or it is true now. Or how we can make it work

Helps motivate reader.


Argue using an analogy.

example: two non-profit programs have given prisoners job training and this has been successful in keeping them out of prison after being released


Provide solutions to weaknesses or modifications

Tell what needs to be done to address those weaknesses (we should encourage people do community gardens, or you can do a modified vegetarianism a few days a week or a few meals).


Emphasize one of the other claims that isn't a main part of your essay but which supports yours.

For example, you may be doing a policy "You should be a Vegetarian" but you can make this seem more valid if you argue that a cause of poor diet is eating too much meat. Or you can argue that policy by supporting the idea with facts that vegetarianism is a healthier diet.

How to Plan Effective Argument

These questions are based on Toulmin argument strategies. Answer these questions to help you get ready to write your outline:

  1. Write the question you are asking. Write your answer (claim or position).
  2. Write the other answers to this question (other positions people believe).
  3. Write at least 3 good reasons you believe this claim. “(the claim) is true because…..”
  4. Underneath the other positions, write the main reasons that people believe those claims (these are the possible objections to your claim).
  5. Underneath each of your reasons for believing your claim (sub-claims or topic sentences for the body of your paper), jot down ideas for how you can best support that. Should you use: Examples? Facts? Opinions? Analogies? Statistics? Logical argument?. If you already have some evidence from a source you can put that down.
  6. What are your warrants (assumptions, bias, worldview or beliefs) which make you believe this claim? Would it be helpful to state these in your paper, or would it be better for your reader to infer them?
  7. Do your warrants need backing? Will explaining your warrants and giving reasons or examples for them help convince your audience? How can you back your warrants?
  8. What will be the position of the audience you are aiming for in your paper ?
  9. Thinking about what your audience believes, should you qualify your claim or narrow it? Do you want to say if …..then…..? Other examples of words you can use to help qualify your claim are “usually,” “often,” or “probably.” If you think you need to qualify your claim, try re-writing it with one of these words.
  10. Plan your rebuttal of objections. Start by looking at questions 2 and 4 and thinking about the other positions on this issue and what they believe. What are the main objections these people will have? What can you say that will answer them?
  11. Which type of evidence will be strongest for this audience: pathos (emotion and stories), ethos (character and authority), or logos (reason, logic, and facts)? What will be your strategy to use this evidence in your paper?

Making a Good Position Paper Outline

Use your research and your answers from the previous work to start your outline. Here are the steps for thinking through your paper:

  1. Who is your audience? What do they believe?
  2. What do I want them to believe? This is your thesis.
  3. What are my best reasons for believing that? These are your Body paragraph sentences--your sub-claims.
  4. Which of these reasons will convince my audience the most? Put that one last in the body.
  5. List those down and turn those into your topic sentences. One reason for being a Vegetarian is.... Another reason is... The most important reason is...
  6. Next, look through your resources and put which facts, stats, authorities, ideas etc. will support each one of those topic sentences. That is how you will use your sources. Sometimes you may quote, but most of the time you will probably paraphrase or summarize. Only quote if it is a specific sentence which has a high impact in the way it is said or if the person saying it has a particular authority.
  7. Now, think about your audience again. It can help at this point to have help from someone else (ask a friend or classmate to help). What objections are they going to have to your position? List what they might say.
  8. How will you answer these objections? See the list of argument strategies.
  9. Where do you put these strategies? Sometimes, you will combine them into a few sentences inside your 3 main reasons (body) paragraphs. However, many times these paragraphs are better in your introduction, conclusion or in separate paragraphs either before or after your 3 main reasons (or in between if the supporting/refuting deals with just one of your reasons).
  10. How do you structure these? Sometimes it is helpful to just state what your audience is thinking and what they might say to you if you were speaking to them. Something like this: Some people may think that you can't get enough protein from a vegetarian diet. As a matter of fact.... (then tell the evidence that you can, but admit that a vegetarian does have to be intentional about eating protein sources).

MLA Bibliography and Citation

As you write your paper, you will need to put in Author Tags to tell where you got your information. In MLA format, you will use author tags inside the sentence and also put in parenthetical citations inside the paper. For full instructions on how to do this see my guide to MLA Bibliography and Parenthetical Citation.


Joyette Helen Fabien from Dominica on December 01, 2014:

This is detailed and clear and it is easy to tell that you know what you are talking about. Interesting and useful! Thanks for sharing.

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