Tips for Writing a Term Paper

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

These are general guidelines for writing a paper. The specific requirements of your field and your instructor’s directions of course trump anything said here.

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1. Topic

Start thinking about your topic early on. Do not leave this decision until the night before (or week after) the paper is due. If your instructor gives you a list of topics to choose from, try to find out which topics are most popular and avoid them.

Don’t underestimate the importance of topic choice. Not only does an original topic show your instructor that you’re interested and engaged in the material, but after marking twenty papers on [insert overdone topic here], your instructor will find your paper on [something different] very refreshing.

Pick a topic that you can be passionate about, not the one that seems easiest. Chances are, if you think a particular topic is easy, so will a whole bunch of other people. Remember: if you write your paper on the same topic as 30 (or 40 or 50) other people, your paper will be compared to theirs. Imagine your paper as the last one to be graded and choose accordingly.

2. Research

Do your research early. There is no excuse not to when you can do your research at home while wearing your pajamas!

Most library catalogs are online. Use your university’s library to find the books you need. Many libraries will allow you to put items on hold—meaning not only is the book saved for you (for a period of time), but when you go to pick it up, it’s already at the counter waiting for you—no need to search the stacks for it. If you need a book that your library doesn’t have, find out which libraries do have it at WorldCat and order it through interlibrary loan.

Most universities and colleges also give their students online access to academic journals. Use the appropriate databases (i.e. ones targeted to your field) to find articles. Another great resource is the Directory of Open Access Journals, a listing of free, online scientific and scholarly journals.

Be aware that databases will often turn up articles in fields that are related to—but that may differ in important respects from—your own. If you decide to use an article from a journal in another field, be sure to note any discrepancies that may come up between that field and your own.

Databases will also turn up non-academic articles (e.g. newspaper and magazine articles). While you should never rely on non-academic sources as your main source of information, they can be useful. For example, in many cases, it is appropriate to use non-academic sources to provide examples to illustrate your points. As well, reliable non-academic sources, such as general interest books or articles written by academics and well-researched articles in reputable magazines or newspapers, can be used to supplement information from your academic sources.

Avoid citing non-academic sources that have an obvious bias or lack meaningful research, e.g. pop culture books, opinion pieces in magazines or newspapers, industry publications, self-published work.

Unless your instructor specifically says it’s okay, don’t cite Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia) in an academic paper. That doesn’t mean you can’t make use of it, however. Here are four good ways to use Wikipedia.

Finally, remember that referencing the course textbook or readings is an easy way to show that your paper is both relevant to the course material and an original piece of work.

3. Organization

Remember the five-paragraph format you learned in high school? Forget it. As long as your argument is clear, you can organize your essay any way you like, using as many paragraphs as you need.

Instead of filling your introduction with over-general background information, clearly state your thesis and give some indication of what you plan to do in the essay. Not only is this helpful for the reader, but it shows that you know what you’re writing about. (You might be surprised how many people don’t!)

A well-written essay synthesizes information from a number of sources in a way that supports the writer’s thesis and ideas. Do not simply summarize the ideas from one source, then summarize the ideas from another source, then summarize the ideas from a third source, etc.

4. Content

It’s fine to use first person to say things like “In this paper, I argue that…” or “Next, I will discuss…” (But please don’t say “We will…” There is only one of you.)

On the other hand, it’s not okay to make a bunch of unsubstantiated opinion statements. In an essay, you must support your arguments with evidence (facts and examples).

Examples can’t be mere lists of things. You must briefly describe each example and explain why it supports your argument—even if it seems obvious to you. The reader shouldn’t have to guess at why you think it’s important.

When you mention the name of an expert in your field, be sure to include enough context to show that you know who the person is. In the same vein, don’t forget to define important terms. Remember, you are showing the reader what you know. A good strategy is to write as if your reader is an intelligent person who is unfamiliar with your field.

Just because you know something doesn’t mean that it’s common knowledge. Common knowledge is something that most people know. When in doubt, cite a source for your information.

Also, often people believe something to be true when it is in fact not. Be sure to verify your information.

5. Mechanics

A term paper is not an IM conversation, a text message, or your Facebook wall. Part of writing a paper is demonstrating that you are able to write in a context-appropriate style. Avoid abbreviations, slang, and clichés.

Your instructor doesn’t ask you to use proper grammar and spelling, format your document in a certain way, or cite your sources to torture you. These details are what give your paper—and you, by extension—credibility. (Would you take seriously a paper that was riddled with typos, had obvious cut-and-pastes in several different fonts and colors, and lacked citations?) If that doesn’t convince you, keep in mind that a properly formatted paper is much easier to read that one that is rife with errors—and you want to keep your instructor’s reading experience as pleasant as possible.

Essays that will be printed are generally double-spaced, with new paragraphs indented. If you tend to write the drafts of your essays online-style (single-spaced, with a space between paragraphs) and double-space after the fact, don’t forget to remove the extra spaces between paragraphs before printing.

Keep within the word or page range your instructor gives you. Extra-wide margins, triple spacing, and large fonts don’t fool anyone.

Unless you are told otherwise, title pages are not numbered and the first page of writing is page 1 (not 2). If you don’t know how to make your word processor skip the page numbering on the first page of your document and/or start the page numbering at 1 on the second page of your document, take five minutes and figure it out.

If your paper has headings, move headings that end up at the bottom of a page to the top of the next page.

Cite your sources, both in text (in parenthetical citations) and in a References (a.k.a. Works Cited, Bibliography) section at the end of your paper. Provide sources for paraphrases as well as direct quotations. Direct quotations need a page number (use a paragraph number and/or section heading if page numbers aren’t available, as with online documents).

If in doubt, cite! Your instructor knows how to use Google, too. Getting caught plagiarizing is no fun.

Format citations in the style specified by your instructor. Yes, this can be a bit of a pain, especially if you’re in a department that uses one style and taking a class that uses a different style. However, remember you want to be kind to your instructor. It is much easier to check the completeness of citations if they are all in the same format. Style guides for many popular citation formats can be found online. For example, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has excellent MLA (humanities) and APA (social sciences) style guides.

Do capitalize proper names of people and places, brand names and trademarks. Do not randomly capitalize words in the middle of sentences just because you want to emphasize them.

Don’t use unnecessary quotation marks or abuse apostrophes. (If you don’t get why these sites are funny, it’s time to brush up on your grammar.)


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