How to Add Length to a Research Paper: Tips and Tricks


When writing research papers most students struggle with two things the most: making their papers shorter and making them longer. We will focus on the latter, because if your paper isn’t long enough you will not have enough content to make good edits, or even make anything shorter. When you’re starting out, the struggle is often with adding length.Then as you mature as a student the more difficult challenge becomes removing content from papers and editing for clarity. Don’t get discouraged if you are facing the need to add length, it takes a long time to get to the point of automatically writing too much. Dave talks in his vlog below about his own experiences adding length to research papers when when he was first started out:

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

There are many different ways of writing a research paper and your professor will have his/her own rubric for what must be included and how the paper will be graded. Graduate level research papers may tend to be more like lengthy literature reviews where you review and synthesize what is already known about your topic. At the doctoral level (or graduate level), you may be proposing an actual research study. Still other papers have their own requirements and rubrics. (If you like this post, you might want to read this one on how professors grade papers.)

There are many places where you can add content to different types of papers. It is actually more difficult to make a research paper shorter, but there are simple tricks to make your research paper longer. This post discusses some tips and tricks for adding length to doctoral level research papers, in particular, but it also will help you find ways to add length to other types of papers as well, including at the graduate level.  

Choosing a good topic may be a process, not the first step

It is important that you’ve chosen a good research topic. By making sure to do many of the following things we describe when writing, you’ll find out if you have chosen well. Sometimes taking these steps will cause you to change your path, and sometimes (hopefully more often) it will truly help you not only add length to your paper, but get into the really important aspects of what you want and need to say. 

What should I write in the introduction?

Most research papers begin with an introduction, but this section should only be two to four paragraphs. You really don’t want to go on and on in the beginning of the paper because it really is for summarizing your topic, what the aim of your study is, and perhaps why it is important to look at this issue or research question. You can say more in the background and/or literature review about the context, state of the art in practice, or what knowledge there is to date on this topic. Here are some tips for writing more about the context of your study in one of the earlier sections of your paper (e.g. background, aims and scope literature review, etc.)

What is the context of your research?

Write about the who, what, when, where, how, and why of your problem, issue, or phenomenon. Write 2-3 sentences for each W or the how. Who does it affect, who can affect the outcomes, who needs to be involved? What is the objective or the strategy of your paper? What has happened before, what is happening now, and what could be happening in the future? Where is this problem or issue occurring, and where are its effects happening most? Where is this topic needed and who needs to be discussing it? And why is that? Why is it happening, why should we care, and why has this topic not been at the forefront? These are just some of the questions you can ask yourself to flesh out the context  of your research questions and research paper. 

Why is your research or topic important?

Write about why this issue or problem is important and what the potential implications are of your study. After writing a few sentences about who, what, where, and why, you will start to see where you can expand upon what you’ve already started to discuss about context. Why is this study or research topic important, who does it affect, where are the implications most evident, and what needs to happen in order to affect change? Then switch those questions around to consider more views on the topic. Dig deep into every avenue of thought and hypothesis on this topic. This alone will give you something to write about. (Here is a great blog post on choosing research topics that you should read).

What are your research questions and hypotheses?

This the place where brevity is best. You do not want to provide detail to back up your hypotheses in this section. Your hypotheses emerge from your review of the literature and your knowledge of the field. Your research questions are expanded on in your background and literature review. You have taken a journey toward developing specific research questions and hypotheses if you are proposing a study. Your research questions and hypotheses may be refined several times, but that is ok. Just make sure they are clear and to the point. 

What is your literature review telling you about what is known and what you might find (if you are doing a study)?

The background and literature sections of your paper are great places for discussing the context of the study or phenomenon and for expanding on what is known in the field about this topic, and /or what the different hypotheses or trains of thought are about how it works or why it is relevant. Your literature review should not be a simple list (like an annotated bibliography) of studies that have preceded yours and what the findings were. Rather it should synthesize similar findings, discuss emerging themes, and show how knowledge to date about the subject suggests your hypothesis might be true. If you need help with literature reviews, you might want to read this blog post:

You might also want to discuss similar theories about the phenomenon, as well as what is not yet known and needs to be studied. There is a lot to write about when looking at the literature and history of your topic, but be careful not to list every study or paper known to man about the topic. Look back about ten years and highlight the most important studies or information. As you mature as a student, this is the section where you tend to write too much and can edit down.

Write a detailed description of 1-2 pages about how things are thought to work. Focus on what is known. When we work from what we know, we can see the gaps that need to be addressed. Do more research if you are struggling on the history and current events relevant to your topic. Search different sources to learn up to the date details on current happenings in your field of study. As you are covering this, more questions and thoughts about the topic will pop into your head. Make sure to take notes and jot down ideas, even if they are small. You never know which thought will lead to a few pages of content. Make sure you establish why your research question and study are necessary and important.

Which theories provide the foundation for your research questions, hypotheses or study?

Your paper may require you to propose or critique a theory. Write where, what, and why the theory is important. Aim for writing 2-3 sentences for each W. Your theory, or someone else’s theory, is the basis of why you’re studying this topic. Start off with a few sentences and then expand upon each sentence. As you are writing, you will develop ideas you may not have thought about initially. It is important to really get into the meat of your theory. Your paper is meant to prove your theory, or it will disprove it as you’re working and cause you to take new avenues and thought patterns to figure out what needs to change. 

Note why you have not chosen a different theory to focus on. It helps to talk about why your theory is important. Why are you writing this, why do you believe in it and why others should read your paper. What is it about this theory that made it something you chose to write about, chose to study and research? And why should others take notice and consider everything you’re saying? Why should it lead to others choosing this to research and study? What led you down this path, what were some of the topics that you didn’t choose, but steered your research towards this theory? 

Where can you go deeper with your analysis?

Look for multiple levels of analysis. What happens when you zoom in and zoom out of what you are looking at? A great example Dave talks about is looking at your hand. It’s a hand, you know it has bones and muscles and tendons, so he says, “I can look at my hand and I can see it as a hand but I can think about it in terms of the molecular structure that’s behind it. I can think of it in terms of cells that are behind it. You know, I can think of it in terms of the different wrinkles and wrinkle patterns; I have lots of fingerprint patterns.” The multiple levels of analysis he is describing will give you a rich, multifaceted, understanding and written description of your topic. Writing a paragraph or two about each level of analysis of your topic and/or a theory will really tease out the details and add length and clarity to your paper. 

Where can you define for clarity and understanding?

Write definitions for each of the ideas you introduce in your paper. Each definition will add one paragraph to the paper. Not everyone who reads your paper is an expert on your theory or topic. It is often helpful to add definitions both to aid understanding and for adding length. Just make sure not to add superfluous definitions to add length where no additional understanding is really needed. Ask yourself if you weren’t in this field, talking about this topic regularly, what would you need to understand better in order to understand the whole? Define those topics and ideas, expand upon those topics and ideas with the intention of making them more clear to the reader and as a basis for topical understanding. 

Have you described your research methods thoroughly?

Why is the method that you are using important and the best method for addressing your research question? How is it different from other methods? What are the key assumptions in your research method? Why can’t you use another method? It’s important to keep notes about your methods. These notes will help you describe your methods, conduct your research and discuss the importance of your methods. You can talk about how other methods vary as well as how other methods failed to yield satisfying answers. Explain how different methods led you to your current method and why the changes were necessary. Spend time discussing how you came to where you are now in your research and what brought you to this place. Taking time to expand on these thoughts in your paper to add length and detail, and to document the evolution in your thinking about how to approach this study. 

What do you think? Write it down 

Not everything has to be cited. If you have a clever idea that is novel, about 75% of your paper will have citations but 25% of your paper will be original. Record your sources and make good citations. But make sure to expand upon your thought patterns on the topic. Yes, you have chosen a research topic and are required to write about it, but you are here for a reason. You have chosen your topic, perhaps created a theory or hypothesis, and are at the point of writing about all you’ve learned. Don’t just talk about what others say, think, and have done. Talk about all the ideas you’ve thought about (take notes!) along the way. 

Research sparks ideas and creativity. This provides avenues for new thoughts and theories. Research sparks more research. Learning and discovering new ways to do things, change things, save lives, increase productivity, provide meaning, and spark more in the minds and lives of others are half of the reasons you do what you do. Talk about what you think about everything you’ve learned and where you think there are more avenues for further study. 

Dave says that you know your own ideas. He says it’s important to look for ways that you can add things that are uniquely your own insights because not everything has to be cited in a research paper. The general rule is you want 60-80% of your content to be based on others’ ideas and work. The remaining 20-40% is your own thinking, theorizing, and synthesizing. You can go on a tangent sometimes about different things, and talk about those different things that you find interesting. It will add to the particular context so if you do that you’re going to have a much more original paper and it’s going to seem a little more clever because nobody else is talking about these ideas. 

Discussion: Have you described several mechanisms that might explain what you are looking at?

There might be several reasons for the change you have observed or are trying to explain. You are seeing change or certain information in your work. Take time to describe those mechanisms, but also look at different mechanisms that might help you and others understand what you are seeing. Looking at it from different viewpoints or through another lens will give you a better understanding of the who, what, where and why of your topic. Considering other mechanisms can help you as you do the research because then you are really thinking about what is happening and why. And, what you may not have considered before or dismissed off hand will become important, not only to your theory, but to your research in general. 

There are many places where you can add length to a paper. At the doctoral level especially, great detail is expected. Just do not write your paper as if you are trying to think of things to say or write about. It will be obvious. You have enough to talk about, even if you don’t realize it at first, to have a paper with sufficient depth and breadth.

If you enjoyed this post, check out these other posts at http://r3ciprocity.com

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