Research Writing

Published academic writing commonly includes summary and analysis of secondary research (published scholarship). We might see secondary research summarized and analyzed in several sections of a paper, including: a literature review (early on in a paper to provide an overview of what scholars currently know and believe about a particular research area), methods sections (in order to explain what discipline-accepted methods and methodologies a writer is using or adapting for their own particular study), discussion section (in order to understand how your particular results relate to what others have found), or in a conclusion (in order to connect what the implications of a study are to how, moving forward, future research needs to connect with previous research).

All of these sections have slightly different approaches to how and why they use secondary research. However, the writing moves involved are similar–we often talk about research writing as putting sources into conversation with each other. This usually means that research writing typically involves some of the following moves:

  • Introducing the author(s) names and the research area they might be working in
  • Using the author(s) names or appropriate pronouns (e.g., She, He, They) to start all sentences that are summarizing their work
  • Accurately summarizing the ideas or findings of each study in a way that doesn’t leave out complexities or nuances
  • Quoting and/or paraphrasing important information and fully explaining its meaning and significance for your own purpose
  • Naming the relationship between different authors’ perspectives or findings explicitly; asking, do these authors agree, disagree, build upon each others’ work, offer similar findings except for one interesting difference, etc. 
  • Connecting the reviewed studies to your own purpose for writing (e.g., analyzing your findings, setting up your own methods or focus)


Research Writing Process Tips

Regardless of what section of a research paper or case study you are writing, writing responsibly with research is challenging and time-consuming. However, taking the time to plan out how you do this work and in what order makes the task of actually writing about it easier. While process based writing tips may not work for everyone, here are some research process tips that we find useful:

Practice deep rhetorical reading of secondary sources.

It can be tempting to simply read an article’s abstract and conclusion, but writing about research is easier if you really feel confident in understanding an article fully. We recommend taking the time to read secondary research in two rounds: first, spend time reading the abstract, the introduction, the section headings, and the conclusion in order to get a strong sense for what the article is about. Second, go back through and read the entire article–using a highlighter to mark information or data that might be useful given your own project.

Take notes while reading.

Writing some notes while you read increases your memory of the text as well as your critical thinking about it. You can write informal notes that involve bullets, writing down questions you have, or reactions, or you can write something more formal that involves pulling out quotes and responding to them. Either way, this pre-writing is a means of deepening your thinking about the text and your own project–it’s worth the time and effort!

Write an annotated bibliography for all secondary sources.

Many researchers find it useful to write an annotated bibliography for their secondary sources. This means that for each source you have two things: 1. A works cited or bibliography citation in the format of your choice (APA, MLA, Chicago Style), and 2. A one-paragraph summary of the article that includes what the author(s) did, why, their findings, and a sentence about how you will use their particular article in your own research project. One of the reasons an annotated bibliography is useful is that it puts all of the sources together in a smaller space–allowing you to visualize them together, in closer proximity, to rearrange their order and think about how they work together. Indeed, many people cut up their annotations and move them around to help build an outline and visualize a paper.

Create an evidence or source chart.

We encourage writers to create an evidence or source chart in which the first column lists the author(s) name(s) and the title of the article, the second column includes specific quotes or findings that relate to your purpose, and the final column is a written explanation of how this particular source relates to your purpose or answers your research question. The goal of the evidence chart, much like the annotated bibliography, is to put all of the sources in close proximity, on the same page together. Additionally, though, the chart is a great way to start to name the relationships between sources and to group them. With a completed chart, you might ask: what sources agree? In what way do they agree? What sources disagree? If all sources are related (as is sometime the case in a literature review), you might ask: what are nuanced differences between these sources? Why do those differences matter?


Research Writing Moves

The following annotated examples are from research from second language writing and writing centers. Although these research examples come from the larger field of rhetoric and composition–and may not be related to the content of the research you are working on–the examples are intended to help illustrate and name how particular research writing moves might work. These examples are not necessarily perfect and each one highlights a slightly different approach; however, we believe seeing examples of how published authors engage in research writing moves can help you to see your options.


Tip: After reading the below examples, find a published article in your own field and try to annotate the writing moves. What are the conventions that your discipline values in research writing?


The following examples are "annotated" as best as we can on the website (each annotated sentence is followed by a number that corresponds to the annotation below); however, the annotations may be easier to read on the PDF handout at the bottom of the page, which uses track-changes in Microsoft Word. 

Providing an Overview of a Research Area

In literature reviews, there are often overviews of prominent research within a particular area or in regards to a particular focus. Often, these moments quickly put several sources together in a small space in order to highlight both the findings and the relationship between those findings. Here are two annotated examples:

Example 1:

Tutor role—as perceived by both the tutor and the tutee—is another important factor explored by researchers studying writing center interaction.[1]  It is claimed that NNES tutees, more so than NES tutees, expect the writing tutor to be an authority or ‘‘teacher’’ figure (Healy & Bosher, 1992; Thonus, 1999, 2004).[2]  Negotiation of tutor role can also

depend on the (English) language proficiency of the tutee and the training/background of the tutor (Weigle & Nelson, 2004).[3]  The student participant in Waring’s (2005) study of advice-resisting in a graduate writing center rejected feedback that she felt the peer tutor was not qualified to give as a non-expert in the disciplinary field of the paper” (96)[4] [1].

[1] Nakamaru, Sarah. “Lexical Issues in Writing Center Tutorials with International and US-Educated Multilingual Writers,” Journal of Second Language Writing, 19 (2010):95-113.

Sentence-By-Sentence Explanation of Research Writing in Example 1: 

[1] The topic sentence of a paragraph in a literature review is naming a specific topic or area that is studied within a particular discipline.

[2] Here, Nakamaru is zooming into a particular finding in the field that relates to the focus of her own research question and study. (NNES means non-native English speakers and NES means native English speakers). This claim is made by the three texts listed in parentheses.

[3] Here, she is offering a related issue that has been studied that complicates the previous generalization.

[4] This sentence is referencing another aspect of this general area of study that adds nuance and complication. So, in this paragraph, Nakamaru is showing what has been found and the different specific aspects that have been studied that add nuance.


Example 2:

Our study required background research on writing in the engineering discipline, the role of writing centers, and the Gibbs Communication Model of consulting with students.[5]  Since our goal is to help bridge the gap between engineering and writing, which is usually associated with English courses, we must establish some background on writing in the field of engineering and define the gap between the two disciplines.

Current scholarship explains that engineering as a discipline and career involves a good deal of writing.[6]  For instance, Stephanie Nelson claims that writing can help engineers “think, act, and evaluate” tasks in their field (2)[7] . However, Charlotte Brammer and Nicole Ervin indicate that engineering courses may not always prepare their students for the writing they’ll do on the job. Their article establishes the need for engineers to develop better writing skills.[8]  Carol Kramburg-Walker reiterates this need and goes further to point to English departments’ obligation to help “provide writing support for academic engineers”[9]  (130).

With this need in mind, some writing centers and English departments collaborate with engineering departments. [10] Most recent scholarship on such collaboration focuses on college-, department-, or faculty-level programs rather than on interaction between students and consultants. For example, Elisabeth Alford discusses the University of South Carolina’s program working with faculty and staff to design coursework and with students in groups or one-on-one to improve individual projects. Also, Erik Fisher, Michael Ursey, and Heather Beasley show how the University of Colorado–Boulder implemented university-wide strategies to increase effectiveness of engineering writing assignments and improve engineers’ writing skills. And Meredith Green and Sarah Duerden describe an Arizona State University program that implemented more writing into the engineering curriculum through problem-solving exercises involving teamwork. [11] Although these articles demonstrate ways opportunities

are increased for engineering students to practice writing and receive feedback and support, the research does not discuss interaction strategies for providing this feedback and support to engineering students” [12] (64).[2]

[2] Johnson, Ruth, and Beth Clark and Mario Burton. “Finding Harmony in Disharmony: Engineering and English Studies,” Young Scholars in Writing, 5 (2015): 63-73.

Sentence-By-Sentence Explanation of Research Writing in Example 2: 

[5] Here, Johnson, Clark and Burton are naming the different disciplinary areas or conversations that they are drawing from. This is particularly useful if you are bringing research from outside of your field or area into it. Here, they are bringing research on writing in engineering to writing center research. This is a meta move that helps readers know what you're doing in a literature review.

[6] Just like in example 1, their topic sentence names a key point they want to provide support for by reviewing different perspectives on it.

[7] In this example, the authors are fully naming scholars and bringing in their specific words as evidence. Typically, each discipline has their own conventions on whether or not it's best to use the author(s) names in a sentence or not. Typically, though, it's helpful when you are putting several different authors in the same paragraph--it helps readers understand what you're doing.

[8] The "However" here is signaling both a problem and that Charlotte Brammer and Nicole Ervin, as authors, are doing something different.

[9] Here, "reiterates this need" is naming that Kramburg-Walker agrees, but adds more. This is a great example of naming a complex relationship between the ideas/findings of two authors.

[10] Again, in a literature review, topic sentences are key points or topics that the writer will then list examples of the work being done around.

[11] Here, they list three different articles with enough information to know that each article offers a slightly different solution to how to support writing in engineering on their campus.

[12] And here, the authors are summarizing the take-away from these three texts as well as locating the gap--the topic that the research does not cover that their own study hopes to. This is a really valued moved in literature reviews--naming how your own study contributes to what has previously been done.


Analyzing Findings

In discussion sections, we usually see scholarly writers connect existing research findings to their own in order to understand if their study agrees with existing research, extends it, complicates it, or offers a new perspective. Here are two annotated examples:

Example 1:

How often do the students and tutors attend to lexical issues relative to grammatical issues? Are there any differences between tutorials with international and US-educated students?[13] 

International student participants and their tutors addressed lexical issues much more frequently than US-educated participants (and their tutors). Further, lexical issues were addressed more frequently than other issues in sessions with international students. [14] This is consistent with findings from other studies in which word choice emerged as an

important focus of discussion in ESL writing conferences (Cogie, 2006; Cumming & So, 1996).[15]  More than 40% of the 55 feedback sequences in Shaolan’s session addressed lexical aspects of the paper. Only 13%, or seven out of 55 sequences, were related to grammatical issues” [16] (104).[3]

[3] Nakamaru, Sarah. “Lexical Issues in Writing Center Tutorials with International and US-Educated Multilingual Writers,” Journal of Second Language Writing, 19 (2010):95-113.

Sentence-By-Sentence Explanation of Research Writing in Example 1: 

[13] In Nakamaru's "Findings and Discussion" section, she organizes it with her research questions.

[14] Her first two sentences are explaining one specific finding from her study.

[15] Here, she is naming the relationship between her study's findings and previous scholarship ("consistent"). This sentence names the relationship, explains enough specific information about the findings of others that also suggests how their focus was slightly different from hers, and she cites the two texts she is referencing in parentheses. It's useful to know that when you connect to others' findings, the goal is to be precise and nuanced--not to simplify your explanation of their work in order to just make it fit exactly.

[16] At the end of the paragraph, she is zooming into the details of her findings. "Shaolan" was a pseudonym for one of her participants.


Example 2:

“Ultimately, the consultants’ familiarity with the English topics becomes a temptation to control the interaction. Since they have knowledge of or experience with the topic, they can use it, whereas in the engineering consultations, they are forced to question instead of answer because they lack familiarity and experience with the topics. [17] Writing center theory constantly reminds us that consultants should use an inquiry model in which they remain equal with and supportive of students (Kinkead and Harris; North; Olsen).[18]  Consequently, whatever amount of experience they have with a topic, they should replicate the questioning format that Anne and Micki use with the engineering students.[19]  In practice, writing centers inevitably end up with both subject area “experts” and “non-experts.” This situation is not necessarily problematic if writing centers learn how to address it: since everyone cannot be an expert, centers must develop effective training for both roles.[20]  It may be telling that although both Anne and Micki use controlling techniques during their consultations with the English student, Micki uses them less. Perhaps extra years of experience and training have helped Micki communicate more supportively—suggesting that training might be the key to addressing this potential problem”[21]  (71).[4]

[4] Johnson, Ruth, and Beth Clark and Mario Burton. “Finding Harmony in Disharmony: Engineering and English Studies,” Young Scholars in Writing, 5 (2015): 63-73.

Sentence-By-Sentence Explanation of Research Writing in Example 2: 

[17]In the third body paragraph of their discussion section, Johnson, Clark, and Burton zoom into a particular finding and explain it clearly to start the paragraph.

[18] Here, they are bringing in what writing center theory--via the three authors listed--tells us is a best practice for writing center tutors (using an inquiry model). So they are summarizing and pulling together the ideas of several authors here to make a point that contrasts their own findings of what tutors were doing.

[19] Here they are explaining that two of the tutors in their study (Anne and Micki) did enact this "best practice." So, after citing the research, they explain how this did or did not happen in their own study.

[20] Here they offer the larger implications of this particular finding--does this matter? If so, how and why?

[21] Moving beyond definitive results, here they are offering potential solutions that might be implied from their findings.



A Link to a PDF Handout of this Writing Guide