Writing a Research Paper: 4 Pitfalls To Help Him Avoid – Part 1

photo-1423592707957-3b212afa6733Writing a research paper can be a bear – it takes planning steps over a long period of time, reading longish articles and maybe even a book, and can involve unfamiliar territory like an annotated bibliography or footnotes. They can range from 3-5 pages to something much longer and can be assigned in English, science, history, or other classes.

Some common pitfalls your teen can fall into and how you can help:

He leaves each assigned step till the last minute. This can be a major stressor for a student. A large project like a research paper tends to be overwhelming and some teens end up avoiding each part and cramming them last minute. This can stress him (and you) out.

You can help by talking about the procrastinating. Try to find out why he’s putting it off and see if he’s willing to let you help him plan it out and stick to a schedule. If so, help him put the due dates in his planner or smart phone (usually thesis/outline, bibliography, 30 quotes, rough draft, final draft). Then plan backwards from each due date for what has to be done to complete that step and put that in the planner/phone as well. Finally, set up to check in on certain days to see how each step is going to see if you can help adjust the plan or troubleshoot something sticky.

She fails to read enough about the topic and has a hard time writing the rough draft. Students generally want to avoid having to read a lot for a research paper, and the assigned 20-40 quotes are usually not enough info. They want to jump around and grab the minimum for what they need and move on. They may be overwhelmed, dislike the assignment or just feel unmotivated.

Whatever the case, see if she’s willing to step through some heavier researching with you. That might involve printing up Internet articles and reading through them together to annotate, translate the content and plan how to use them. It could also mean looking up key words and ideas in the index of a book and taking notes on those relevant sections.

Additionally, it may mean that her first list of sources is missing some important piece of info and she needs to go back and do more searching, something you can help her identify and then research.


She doesn’t create a clear outline. Very important step for a research paper – otherwise writing can get unwieldy and confusing. Often times the outline isn’t set up well, or she hasn’t made one (unless it’s assigned). Outlines can be hard and time consuming but a detailed plan before writing can be a major time saver.

Sit down with her and write the outline together. Could be something minimal like topic sentences for paragraphs and 5 bullets each or an exhaustive thing that lays out the arguments, the supporting details, the key quotes and groups everything into clear paragraphs. Either way, it’s better than nothing or something too vague or poorly organized. 

His thesis is confusing, too broad or doesn’t argue anything. A strong thesis or controlling idea is very important. Some research papers, i.e. one that describes the history of the U.S. auto industry, don’t really require an argument. Others, like a comparison of two Chinese dynasties or two U.S. presidents, need a strong, specific argument.

Either way, help him use the rubric and/or prompt to create a clear, one sentence thesis. He’ll need to have read on the topic and brainstormed beforehand, taking some notes. Often students get to pick their own topic. In that case make sure he’s created a clear question and has then answered that question with a thesis statement strong enough to guide him through the outlining and writing process.


  • Topic: He picks Louis Armstrong
  • Question he creates: How did Louis Armstrong impact race relations in America?
  • Thesis he writes: While Armstrong’s impact on the development of jazz music is clear and profound, his need to conduct his career within the constraints of a deeply racist America meant that his influence over race relations and the Civil Rights Movement was rather limited.

A thesis is so important you should encourage him to run it by his teacher, just to be sure he’s on the right track.

Check out Part 2 of this blog post




    1. // Reply

      Very true… I agree, thanks for pointing to that.

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