A research paper should present a topic based on reading and/or investigation. While the length may vary, keep focused on the substance of your arguments. The style of a research paper depends on the topic, and citations vary with the discipline. However, every paper contains an introduction, key arguments and a conclusion. Above all, try to maintain a clear point of view throughout.
Focus on a problem or issue, make a logical argument and assert a position. You do not simply want to describe a topic, but critically give thoughts and opinions about it. Clearly state your paper's thesis—the main idea put forth. While drawing on ideas and theories from others in the field who have written about the topic, the purpose should revolve around giving new perspective.
The introduction must alert the reader to the topic. Your thesis should describe an idea, pose a question or outline key issues. In the body of the paper, provide an overview of your key arguments. The conclusion should bring it all together. The goal is not to repeat the introduction. The paper should creatively summarize the thesis and present the reader with a response, or point to gaps in the literature.
A theory, according to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, is a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something. In “A Good Book, In Theory,” Alan Sears writes that a theory provides an explanation of a phenomenon that uses some sort of broader framework of understanding. A theoretical paper will use frameworks. If based on research, a paper should rely less on external sources.
Before writing, know your discipline's approved citation style—MLA, APA or Chicago style, for example. Pick a citation style (your instructor may assign one), and use it consistently. In order to avoid accusations of plagiarism, you must cite external sources. Finally, always place the works cited or bibliography list for references at the end of the paper.
Do not write a research paper as a collection of your opinions. For example, a paper about how much you love television is a personal essay rather than a research paper. Instead, after researching the literature on television, you could write a paper on its social impact. A research paper starts with extensive reading, not a casual browsing of literature. If you do not read, you will not know your topic.