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Writing a Research Proposal

This guide contains information and guidance on how to write a research proposal.

Structure of a Research Proposal

Your research proposal should flow similarly to a research paper.  This is the general order of how content should be structured in a research proposal (McCombes, 2019):

  • Cover Page: Contains your project title, your name, your supervisor's name, program/department, institution or affiliation, and date.
  • Table of Contents: Outlines the contents of your entire proposal with respective page numbers.
  • Introduction: Contains background and context, a problem statement, research questions, and the rationale behind the study.
  • Literature review: Contains key concepts and theories that serve as the framework for your study as well as any gaps in research.
  • Research design and methods: Contains research objectives, method, and potential limitations
  • Implications: Explains how the study can be applied to the existing field of knowledge on the topic.
  • Reference list: A list of references used to write the proposal.
  • Research schedule: A timeline of research phases and how they will achieve the objective and meet deadlines.

In compliance with APA style, you can use these sections as headings for your document as well.  Using section headings makes information more organized for the reader and allows them to follow the author's thoughts more clearly.

Writing Style

Besides the contents of your proposal, you also need to pay attention to your writing style.  It is going to be different from other papers or documents you may have had to write in the past.  According to Academic Writer (n.d.), the following are some of the main elements of writing style.  These are important to making your proposal sound respectful and professional.



Instead of using common language, which is the type of language we use in normal conversations, you want to use the "language of research" or the "language of science."  This means that if a term has two meanings, you should only use the term for the meaning that is the most relevant to your research.  For example, if a chemist uses the word "element" in a proposal, they use it only in the context of its scientific definition.  This prevents the reader from getting confused throughout the document.  Avoid creating new terms in your proposal and be sure to clearly define unfamiliar words at the beginning of the proposal  (Locke et al., 2007).  Lastly, you also want to avoid using first person in your proposal ("I will...") as it does not demonstrate professionalism in writing.



The tone of your writing should be professional and serious.  In other words, use "academic voice" in your proposal writing.  Academic voice is meant to convey your thoughts and distinguish them from other authors (Robbins, 2016).  It is comprised of three elements ("What are the three elements," n.d.):

  • Making declarative statements
  • Avoiding casual language
  • Demonstrating authority

These elements make your academic writing unique from other writers and present your thoughts in a professional manner.



You want to ensure that your writing is precise so that readers have a clear understanding of your project.  Proposals should exclude excessive jargon (technical terms), slang, and abbreviations.  They should also make logical comparisons between ideas to prevent readers from getting confused or lost ("Academic Writer," n.d.).  Here are some general tips for ensuring clarity in your writing:

  • Using a term consistently throughout your paper (it refers to the same meaning throughout the document).
  • Do not use excessive jargon or technical terms, and make sure you define any new terms.
  • Draw comparisons between concepts to avoid ambiguity.  This requires using proper word choice and sentence structure.



  • Do not overuse passive voice
  • Describe things precisely and "to the point."
  • Assign one argument or idea per paragraph.
  • Locate areas in your document to break up text into different paragraphs.
  • Use a variety of sentence lengths.



  • Be mindful of how you use punctuation marks.  This includes commas, dashes, and hyphens.
  • Use transitional words (and, or, therefore, etc.)  to maintain flow.



  • Avoid using creative writing techniques, such as similes, metaphors, figurative language, and poetic devices.
  • Do not use contractions in your proposal (can't, don't, etc.).
  • Use words that reflect your involvement in research in your field.
  • When writing about people, use respectful language.


Verb Tense

  • Use appropriate verb tenses to reflect series of events and timelines in your proposal.


For more in-depth content on writing style in academic writing, you can view quick guides and tutorials about scholarly writing on Academic Writer.  If you are new to using Academic Writer, we also have a database tutorial for new users.  The links to the database and tutorial are below.