Follow these steps for writing a successful research essary or academic paper. 

Step 1: Understand the Assignment

Identify the types of sources your assignment requires so you can choose the right research tools.

Before you begin searching the Library catalogue and databases, clarify some details about the assignment:

  1. What type of assignment is it? (Research paper, essay, opinion paper, review, or other?
  2. How long does your paper need to be? How many sections should it have & how long should each section be?
  3. How many sources do you need for your bibliography?
  4. What types of information do you need? (Statistics, Web pages, books, articles, images, audio/video clips, or other?)
  5. Do you need current or historical sources? Or both?

If you are unclear on any of the requirements, ask your professor as soon as possible. Doing this early in the semester will save you stress later on and will show your professor that you are proactive.

Step 2: Topics and Thesis Statement

Choose a Topic

Sometimes your topic is assigned by your professor. Usually, you'll have the freedom to choose your research topic. Choose a topic that's specific enough to be manageable without being too narrow. These steps can help.

  1. Think of topics that are interesting to you. Get ideas by skimming your textbook or reading-related news or magazines.
  2. Identify which authors and sources will be most important to your topic. Scholarly reference books (such as dictionaries and encyclopedias) will give you an authoritative overview and suggest sources. Reading a reference article can save you time!

Write a Thesis Statement

After you’ve identified and narrowed a research topic, re-state it in the form of a question. Phrasing your topic in the form of a question helps to direct your research process.

Asking whether a fact or statistic directly answers your research question will help you focus on the most relevant information. A good research question leads to a direct answer in the form of a thesis.

A sample research question might be: “What are some strategies for improving self-care among social workers?”

This question might lead to the thesis: “Recommended strategies for improving self-care among social workers include flexible benefits and scheduling, caps on caseload, and…”

Step 3: Identify Keywords

A good research question helps you identify the different concepts your research will cover. Our example, “What are some strategies for improving self-care among social workers?” has two distinct concepts:

  • Self-care
  • Social workers

These concepts become the search keywords you'll use in the Library Catalogue and Journal Article Sources

Keep in mind that authors will use different keywords to describe a topic. One author might use “self-care,” and another might write “compassion fatigue”. Identify synonyms and related terms for each of your keywords. For example:

  • Self-care: burnout, compassion fatigue, mental health
  • Social workers: Social work, social workers, counselor, counsellor, clinician, case work

Step 4: Research Strategy

Once you’ve identified your search terms and synonyms, combine your terms into search strings.

Search tools like the Library catalogue and article sources require a specific format for search statements, including Boolean operators. Boolean operators are words like and, or, and not. Placing these words between your search terms will help you find appropriate books and articles.


The word and gives you more targeted results. It requires both terms to be included in the title, abstract, or table of contents of a book or article. For example, looking for information on self-care for social workers:

  • A keyword search in a database for “self-care” returns 1353 titles.
  • A keyword search for “self-care and social work” returns only 148 titles, which are much more relevant to our topic.


The Boolean operator or is the opposite of and. Or generally gives you more search results by requiring either one term or another to appear in a book or article. This works best when you're looking for synonyms or related terms. For example, using our example above:

  • A keyword search for “self-care or compassion fatigue” returns 1427 titles.
  • A keyword search for “self-care and compassion fatigue” returns 34 titles.

A Full Search

A good multiple search for your topic would be "(self-care or compassion fatigue) and "social work".

The brackets ( ) group your synonyms together and the quotation marks ” ” make sure the words are searched as a phrase, not two separate words.


Use truncation to find similar words with different endings. Place a * after the common 'trunk' of the word to find all variations. For example: educat* searches “education”, “educate”, “educational”  

Find Books and Videos

Step 5: Choose The Right Database

Two types of research sources can be found through the John Fairbank Memorial Library: books and articles.

Find books, ebooks, and articles on any academic topic in our library catalogue.

For subject-specific topics, find databases in your subject and search for books & articles in any or all of those.

Step 6: Mark, Save, and Email Your Results

Once you find books and articles on your topic, be sure to save the information. This will save you time as you organize your notes and start preparing your bibliography.

In the Library Catalogue, download book details by adding them to your lists or selecting the Cite icon in each record.

In online databases, look for ways to mark your articles or save them in a folder. Then look for print/email/save options. You can also choose to have a pre-formatted citation (in APA, MLA, or Chicago style) included in an email or saved file.

If the database you’re using does not have a full-text copy of the article you need, it will provide you with a link to an Interlibrary Loan Request form. Fill out the form, and we will get a copy of the article you need from another library. Note that some ILL requests could have a cost and can take 2-7 working days to fulfill.

Step 7: Write Your Paper 

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what your main points are. If you want some help with the writing process, schedule an appointment with the Academic Learning Centre (ALC). The writing tutors will provide tips, feedback, and suggestions to help you write a great paper.

Step 8: Cite Your Sources 

Learn how to avoid plagiarism and cite your sources properly. 

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