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How to Write a Quality Term Paper

Executive Summary

Writing term papers is a requirement of most college and university level courses today. It is primarily through the term paper – a lengthy written composition designed to be indicative of a student’s progress through a term of study or course – that a professor will assess a student’s ability to engage with complex ideas and research materials in a clear and analytical manner. As a result, the term paper grade will usually represent a significant portion of the student’s final grade.

Despite the clear importance of the term paper to a student’s academic success, however, few students have received any training or guidance in writing compositions at this length for the post-secondary level. This report will discuss the research and writing process for term paper composition from beginning to end, with a focus on the practical realities of term paper writing for contemporary students.

Where to Begin?

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”    
- Lao Tzu    

The beginning of a term paper is usually the point of greatest anxiety in the writing process. However, these anxieties can be eased by following a few key steps at the outset.

Consider the Requirements of the Assignment:

Is the term paper on a given topic of given length (both provided by the instructor) or are one or both of these open to you to decide? If the instructor has provided both, you may move on to the research stage. If, however, the instructor has left one or both open to you, then choosing the topic becomes crucial to your term paper’s success.

Choosing the Topic:

The first key point to remember in choosing a topic is that the topic must be related to the length of the essay. For example, if your course is “World Religions” and you have a page limit of about five pages, then choosing a topic such as “The History of Christianity” would be a mistake. Your topic must be one that you can realistically and critically address in the number of pages required.

Secondly, a term paper topic should always be interesting. Practically speaking, your instructor will be reading and grading many papers at the same time as your own. An interesting topic immediately makes your paper stand out from the crowd, and increases the likelihood of a good grade.

The third key point to remember in choosing a topic is that the topic must be supported by enough scholarly research to write a term paper. Therefore, one often rejects a topic one likes, or the one which first came to mind, in picking one for which there is more scholarly source material available.

Research

University professors and officials are increasingly critical of the use of Internet sources in writing term papers. For example, websites such as “Wikipedia” are now often explicitly rejected as an acceptable source for many term paper assignments. Only two types of research materials remain universally acceptable: scholarly texts and academic journals

As a practical rule of thumb, the research process should move from a broad overview to a specific focus. Begin with looking at scholarly books in the area you wish to write on, which may be found through your university library catalogue. Browse these to get a general idea of what you want to write on. Then begin looking at academic journals, found on-line through a keyword search using your university library’s access to article databases such as Scholars Portal (interdisciplinary) or ERIC (education). Journal articles are always focused on more narrow topics and themes than academic books, and so are useful mainly when you know where you will want to focus your term paper.

While some guides to writing term papers recommend writing detailed research notes on cards and several notepads, realistically this is not an option for today’s students who are juggling heavy course loads and sometimes jobs. A good time-saving trick is to quickly skim a book – checking your topic first in the table of contents and the index - looking for interesting supporting quotes, and mark those pages with multi-colored sticky notes. Print out copies of your journal articles and use a highlighter for good quotes/passages. Number your articles according to their value to your paper as measured by the number of good quotes/passages they contain.

The Writing Process

The first stage in the writing process is drafting the thesis statement. By this point, you should have your topic defined and most of your research done. While your topic is the general subject matter of the term paper, the thesis statement is what you will be arguing or supporting in the paper. For example, in a course on “International Relations: The Cold War” your topic could be “The Berlin Wall” and your thesis statement something like the following: “The Berlin Wall, although a symbol of oppression, led to stable and more peaceful relations between the Warsaw Pact and NATO than would otherwise have been possible.”

On the basis of your thesis statement and your scholarly research, you should now draft a brief outline of your overall paper. Almost all term papers will be comprised of four parts: (1) Introduction; (2) Body; (3) Conclusion; (4) Works Cited/References.

The Introduction should be a paragraph in length, and begin with an opening sentence that “hooks” the reader’s interest. The introduction should then tell the reader what the paper will do/say. A clear, concise thesis statement should be located near the end of the Introduction.

The Body will be the bulk of your term paper. The outline will be critical in writing this section, as it will be the “skeleton” upon which the body of your term paper will hang. In your outline you should highlight the key supporting arguments of your thesis statement. Each of these will comprise a section of the paper, and the number of arguments/sections should reflect the length of the overall paper (i.e., longer paper=more supporting arguments). As a general rule, each section should begin with a topic sentence that clearly indicates what the section/supporting argument will be and how it relates back to the thesis statement.

Two rules of thumb to remember in drafting the body of a term paper: (1) Keep Things Together (i.e., keep points and ideas for one supporting argument/section in that one section, and not jumbled across the paper; and (2) Flow (i.e., in the sentence at the end of a supporting argument/section, introduce the next section. This creates a sense of unity and flow that makes reading the paper more enjoyable, and increases the likelihood of a good grade.)

The Conclusion is essentially a mirror image of the Introduction. It should outline what the paper has said, and how this supports the thesis statement. Finally, the Works Cited/References lists all sources consulted in researching the paper. This section should be written in the format prescribed by your professor (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago Style etc.).

Review

Finally, upon completion of the paper, it is critically important that you review the document. First, a spelling and grammar check – such as is available in most word processing software – will often highlight errors you may have inadvertently made in drafting your paper. Second, re-read the Introduction and the topic sentences of the major sections. Did you address the thesis statement as you said you would? Are the major sections/supporting arguments always relating back to the thesis statement? If your answer to one or both of these questions is “No” or “Maybe,” then you may wish to revise either the Introduction or parts of the supporting arguments.