Learn to Love Your Term Paper
By Julia Nielsen
Writing term papers can be fun. The more of them you write and the better you get, the more you will enjoy the process. In university you will likely write more than you ever have or will again; your writing will vary in purpose and weight, and include short answer exams, essays exams, lab reports, term papers, theses. Here we shall consider term papers, though the points can be compacted or expanded for your other writing.
Term papers are meant to be organized and well developed, have an academic tone and follow a stipulated format; they needn't be dull. The overall purpose is to communicate information, whether reporting research findings, proposing research, arguing an issue, solving a problem, reviewing literature, or defending a position.
This AU Counselling Services instrument explains how to write a term paper. It is set out in sequence, though after you successfully write several papers, you will find the most comfortable method of writing for yourself. Many, for instance, prefer to write their conclusion or summary first, using it as a very abbreviated outline template. An abstract also can serve this function. Others make an outline from the written paper, checking for logical flow. Some continually self-edit. Still others, to work through writers' block, will write more objective parts, such as the Methods section of a research paper, first. With experience, you still may find the standard procedure is most comfortable for you.
2. Clarify assignment and choose topic
First you need to determine what your assignment is and choose a topic, a thesis. To help you decide how much time you need, find out when the paper is due and what its weight is. Clearly, a paper due at the end of term and counting for all your course mark will require more planning, work, and time than one due next week that is worth five percent of your mark. Find out if there are size expectations or constraints. If your instructor has not said what format, e.g. APA, MLA, Chicago, is required, ask. Many differences are small, but some instructors will accept only one format.
3. Think about topic
Work out an action plan for the paper, allowing reasonable deadlines to reach each step, and steadily work to those deadlines. You have already completed the first step, having information about paper due date, weight, size, format, audience, purpose, and such. Now start thinking about the topic. Try brainstorming for five minutes to half an hour, writing down everything that comes to mind about your topic. Don't evaluate the ideas or correct your spelling, just jot the ideas down.
Now narrow the focus, priorize the ideas, decide what is necessary or especially interesting for your purpose, in this case, the thesis of your paper. Make a general outline for your research; you might decide to use a list of topics and subtopics. Point form or key words will help guide you.
4. Research topic, make notes
Once you have chosen a topic and subtopics, start researching. While you gather information from libraries, databases, journals, books, observation, informants or other means, make notes and keep track of your sources as you go. Take time to write the whole reference, so you will have it for your bibliography or reference list, citations, and for double-checking your information. Also, be kind to yourself - SAVE YOUR WORK REGULARLY, BACK IT UP AND MAKE AN EXTERNAL BACKUP. For major papers such as a thesis or dissertation, it is prudent to make more than one backup; computers and floppies are marvelous tools most of the time. Save your second backup disk somewhere other than where you usually write, at a friend's house, in a safety deposit box, at your office, and exchange the updated floppy disks regularly.
5. Sort data
When you have gathered all your data, begin sorting it into categories. Assigning each category a letter or number, then lettering or numbering each note accordingly is useful in the early stages of organization. People use many devices to classify their data, so find one (or more) that works best for you. These categories are variations of some sort of outline, whether an outline as such, a mind map, taping (with masking tape) grouped notes to the wall, arranging them on your study floor or large table, using file cards, or any combination. Whichever you use, the point is to organize your information and determine the connections between and among the categories, resulting in the model for your paper's structure.
6. Outline and first draft
If you used another classifying method, now is the time to make an outline, and use it to write your first draft. Don't concern yourself with length, don't self-edit, just write. By the final draft you likely will need to develop some ideas further, and it is almost certain you will need to edit, to eliminate punctuation and words that weaken your paper.
In your first paragraph - often the most difficult - engage your reader's attention. Introduce the paper by telling what you are writing about, what your purpose or thesis is and why. Give the reader a reason to read the paper. Remember, this is a first draft; you can rewrite or move the paragraph later.
In the first paragraph and as you develop your paper, use transitions to link one sentence to another, one paragraph or section to another. The transitions might be single words, like but, however, similarly; or phrases or clauses. You might require a sentence to make the link explicit. In more extensive research papers these transitions may take the form of headings, e.g., Methods.
Following your outline - though not necessarily linearly - develop your paper according to your instructions. Use your categorized research notes to develop the points you want to make; use the evidence you've collected, including quotations and examples, to support your discussion, explanation, defense, comparison, argument. Continue as you've begun and avoid self-editing at this point.
When you have said all you want to say about your topic, finish it. In your last paragraph or two pull the points you've made together, in either a conclusion or summary, reminding your reader what you have said and why. Now take a few minutes to spellcheck the paper and save it.
Difficult though it may be, put the paper away, out of sight for at least a couple of days, longer if you can afford the time. The idea is to look at it with as fresh a perspective as possible, as objectively as you can. We all fall in love with our own words, making objective editing difficult, but time increases our ability to do the necessary pruning.
After a break from your paper, begin editing it, saving it with a different name, e.g. Draft2. Re-read your assignment and your topic; to ensure you have dealt with them, bear both in mind as you review your paper.
Review your introduction and conclusion. Do they tell what you are going to say, and what you have said, respectively? Review the body of your paper. Have you developed your thesis thoroughly, using significant examples, citations, details, comparisons, etc.? Did you say everything you wanted to say and have you said it clearly?
To verify the logical order of your ideas and paragraphs, check your paper against your outline. Is the transition between ideas and paragraphs smooth? Use words, phrases and headings as needed and appropriate.
Now we come to the part many students find difficult to do honestly - pruning the paper. Eliminate words, phrases, clichés, whole paragraphs, anything that does not make the paper stronger. Make your language clear, without verbosity or pomposity; every word ought to have a purpose. Padding and fluff demean both reader and writer.
Check your references for completeness within themselves and against your reference list or bibliography.
Line edit for punctuation and missing words.
Spellcheck your paper. Be cautious though; a spellchecking program picks out incorrect spellings, not incorrect words. If you mean 'save', check to be sure you don't have 'wave'. You may find it helpful to print the paper in draft mode for this proofreading. A further caution, especially for Canadian students: ensure your spelling is consistent. If you use 'honour', then 'neighbour'; if 'honor', then 'neighbor'.
Give it a rest for at least a day or two.
Before you edit what will be your third draft, read the paper aloud. If you're satisfied with how it sounds, ask a colleague or friend to read it and give you an honest response. Be prepared for criticism, and to answer any questions. Make justified amendments. Now repeat the editing steps for the second draft, saving with a different, related name, e.g. Draft3.
Print it. Skim it for obvious errors.
Breathe deeply, and treat yourself - you've earned it.