Writing a research paper takes anywhere from a couple days to a couple years. It primarily depends on whether you’re writing a paper for a class assignment, or if you’re writing for publication based on original research. The former can be completed in a few days, while the latter can take months or years.
Research Papers for classes
It generally takes about 20 to 40 hours of work for a 20 page, double spaced research paper. This is not including research time or editing time; just the writing time.
Adding in the research and editing time can take the paper writing process from a few days to a couple weeks. Some students like to cram this into a couple 16-hour days, while others prefer a more relaxed pace of working on it over a few weeks.
Doing your research and gathering your sources ahead of time will drastically speed up the writing process. See below for more tips to keep your paper writing time to a minimum.
Research Papers for a Journal Publication
On the low end, it takes 2 months, more commonly 6 to 12 months to write a research paper for publication in a journal. Then, you have to factor in the actual timeline from submission to publication.
The publication process has many steps. It starts with the article submission, then peer review. It’s very common to have a rejection or two in the process. You may be asked to redo certain parts of an experiment, to gather new data, or to otherwise do more work. Then re-submitting the paper, and finally (hopefully) acceptance into a journal.
The submission process can take anywhere from 3 to 12 months. Some of this is not entirely in your control. For example, a peer reviewer (referee) might drop out of the peer review process, and the journal may have to assign it to a new referee, which takes time.
Before you start writing, it's a good idea to carefully review the submission guidelines for your target publication. Journals have very specific criteria for what's accepted. For example, here's the start of Nature's submission guidelines:
From start to finish, from the day you write your first word to the day an article is published in a journal, can be as long as two years, or as short as 4 months.
How to write your paper in less time
Why are some people able to knock out papers in a few days, while others take weeks or months?
A lot of it comes down to the methodology. By having a good methodology, you can dramatically cut down on the writing time.
Here are a few ways to make writing your paper faster and easier:
Skim and search intelligently
If you want to write quickly, it’s impossible to read all the papers and books from start to finish. Instead, use “CTRL+F” liberally.
Start by reading the abstracts of the relevant literature. Then, use your computer’s search function to search through papers for keywords related to your paper. Go deeper on the parts of the paper that are more relevant to what you’re working on.
Of course, you should go deep on the papers that are most relevant to you. One great way to do that is to listen to research papers. That way, you can listen to research papers in your spare time.
Gather data and materials early
Try to have all your data in one place, ready to go before you start writing. The writing process is all about telling a coherent story; and the story comes from the data. If your data sources change, it can change the entire narrative of the paper.
Sometimes this is unavoidable - if you have to add data or conduct additional experiments after you start writing, the writing process usually stalls and has to restart later. This can be really frustrating to deal with.
Make sure to preserve all your code, data sources, and images in as much resolution as possible. In case a different slice of data is required during peer review, you don’t want to have to go hunting down lost data.
Pro tip: order all the secondary literature you need early in the process. You don’t want to have to wait for an interlibrary loan when your due date is looming.
Research is (more than) half the battle
Research is more than half the battle. If you haven’t done your research before starting to write, it can more than double your writing time.
One of the best ways to do your research is to casually collect sources, even when you’re not writing a paper. Always be on the lookout for interesting research, and make sure you’re keeping up with the literature. Use a source management tool like Zotero to track your sources.
Doing this, even when you’re not actively working on a paper, will make writing a paper a lot easier. You’ll breeze through your literature review, and quickly be able to jump into the core of what your research paper is about.
Create a writing schedule
Creating a writing schedule can really help the writing process move along. This schedule tells you what you’re doing on each day, so you can clearly see if you’re on track or falling behind. A schedule can help you make sure you’re not spending too much time on one particular aspect of your paper.
Let it sit for 48 hours
After you’ve finished the paper, it’s often a good idea to let the paper sit for 48 hours. Don’t look at it at all. Then, come back to your paper with fresh eyes. You’ll often spot errors, or areas of improvement, that were invisible to you before.
Manage Your Collaborators
Having too many collaborators can double, triple, or even 5x the amount of time it takes to write a paper.
Each collaborator will have their own opinions about what should be in the paper. They may have revisions, that also need to be reviewed by other collaborators. Then there’s the normal friction that comes from waiting for responses, procrastination, and so on.
A good collaborator, who’s committed to the project, can accelerate things. But adding too many people - or people who aren’t as committed - can really make a paper drag on.
tl;dr - How long to write a research paper?
In short, it takes anywhere from a few days to a couple years. Classwork is generally much faster, taking a couple days if you have all your research lined up, to a couple weeks if you’re starting from scratch. Writing for journal publications takes much longer, anywhere from a couple months to a couple years.