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Tools to Help You Organize Thoughts & Write a Research Paper

by Susan Harlow, studioD

Writing a research paper may not seem easy for many students, but most find it much easier to get started once they get their thoughts and ideas down and organized. Tools such as prewriting, mind maps, outlining, rough drafts and checklists can help students organize thoughts and write a research paper.


Prewriting is used to generate and organize ideas for the body of the paper by writing them down. It is likely the most important part of the writing process, according to “Yale Graduate School Writing Center.” Prewriting tools such as brainstorming and free writing help narrow the focus of the content, so the paper follows an effective and logical pattern. In brainstorming, you list ideas by quickly jotting down key words or phrases. In free writing, you choose a topic, set a timer and begin writing everything that comes to mind without stopping until time is up.

Mind Maps

Mind maps are a nonlinear approach to organizing thoughts, ideas and research data by starting with a central idea and branching out into a series of connected topics and subtopics. Mind mapping diagrams the relationships between ideas, and is helpful for those who tend to think visually. It can be a simple diagram of single words or phrases, or it can engage visual literacy through symbols and images that organize the diagram to communicate whole ideas. Mind maps can be created using pencil and paper or through computer software designed to construct simple or complex mapping.


Outlining is a universal tool used for organizing a research paper. It helps determine whether the topic has been researched thoroughly, and shows the relationship between the paper’s ideas. An outline helps determine the scope of the paper, shows the structural order of the topics and subtopics used, and helps keep the information organized logically. It can be developed in sentence form or using main points that are tentative and can be easily rearranged. Outlining thoughts and ideas saves time because it helps keep the writer from straying off topic.

Rough Drafts

Rough drafts are a writer’s tool for organizing thoughts into a working copy of the completed report. They help determine if ideas are following a logically organized structure by using an introduction which provides the working thesis statement, structuring the body with details and evidence to support the thesis, and developing the conclusion, which marks the last section of the paper. Rough drafts are revised and edited several times to ensure the quality of the finished work.


Checklists are essential tools for ensuring the final copy of the research paper is organized properly and polished for submission. They provide a step-by-step guide for evaluating areas such as content, grammar and format. Before submitting a paper, use a checklist and read the final copy aloud, slowly and deliberately, to ensure the quality of the finished work.

About the Author

Based in Virginia, Susan Harlow is an adjunct English professor and writing resource coordinator. She specializes in education and technical communication. She holds a Master of Arts in English with a concentration in literacy, technology and professional writing from Northern Arizona University.

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