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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Preparing to Write

General Information

To make a paper readable:

  • Use a 12 point standard font; the most common used for research papers is either New Times Roman, Calibri, Georgia, or Garamond.
  • Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" white paper with one inch margins on all four sides.
  • Number pages consecutively but never number the title page as page 1.

General mistakes to avoid:

  • Start each new section on a new page--avoid orphan headings [insert a page break!].
  • Dividing a table or figure--if possible, confine non-textual elements, such as a table or chart, to a single page.
  • Submitting a paper with pages out of order.
  • Not adhering to recommended page limits.

General  stylistic and grammatical mistakes to avoid:

  • Use normal prose with appropriate articles ["a," "the," "an"].
  • Spell checkers and grammar checkers are helpful, but they don’t catch everything. Always proofread and, if possible, get someone to do it for you before submitting your final paper.
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph.
  • If a paragraph is nearly a page or more longer, then it is probably too long for the reader to contemplate and should be divided into smaller paragraphs.
  • Write in active voice when possible but note that some professors prefer a passive voice.
  • Write out all abbreviations the first time they are used with parentheses around the abbreviation [i.e., International Monetary Fund (IMF)]. Do not use too many abbreviations; they shorten the text but make it more difficult to read because the reader has to repeatedly think about what each means. Never start a sentence with an abbreviation.
  • Do not use contractions in academic writing and do not start sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or) or numerals.
  • Avoid informal wording, addressing the reader directly, and using jargon, slang terms, or superlatives unless they appear in direct quotes from other sources.

In all sections of your paper:

  • Stay focused on the research problem you are investigating [follow the steps in this guide].
  • Use paragraphs to separate each important point.
  • Present your points in a logical order.
  • Use present tense to report well accepted facts [e.g., "The Prime Minister of Bulgaria is Boyko Borissov."]
  • Use past tense to describe specific results from your study [e.g., "Evidence shows that the impact of the invasion was magnified by events in 1989."]
  • Avoid the use of superfluous non-textual elements [images/figures/charts/tables]; include only those necessary for presenting or enhancing an understanding of the results.

NOTE: These are general guidelines that apply to almost every paper you write in college. However, the specific format of your paper--how you arrange the title page, headings, subheadings, non-textual elements, citations, appendices, etc.--will be dictated by the writing style manual you are asked to use [e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA, or other]. If your professor has not stated which style to use, be sure to ask.


The Guide to Grammar and Writing. Capital Community College Foundation; Grammar. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Tips. Writers Workshop.  University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign;  Handouts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.