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In high school, you probably wrote several term papers, with varying degrees of success, usually dependent upon your level of interest in the topic, your ability to write well (or not), and the time constraints under which you worked.  Writing a term paper at the university level, however, is quite different, and pulling an “all-nighter” to produce one from start to finish is simply not possible any more.  The topics are more sophisticated, the expectations are higher, and the research requirements are much more complex.  The basic steps for a college term paper are essentially the ones you already know, but there are variances that you must understand.

Excellent Term Papers begin with Topic Choice

Generally, students are given options for term paper topics, within a broad general area of study.  If everyone in the class must write on the same topic, however, your job will be more difficult, for you must find some unique approach that will set your paper “out” from the others.  Let us assume, however, that you have some latitude in regards to topic.

  1. Do not choose your topic until you have read a bit about the general area.  If, for example, you are in a basic psychology class and are assigned an in-depth paper covering a specific mental illness or disability, read some summary materials on several until you find the one that interests you the most.  It is far easier to research and write about something in which you have an interest.
  2. If you have read some on your topic, you may have questions.  One of these questions can form the basis of your paper and will narrow your research task considerably. For example, when was autism first defined and diagnosed as a mental disability and how have the definitions and diagnoses changed over the years?  Excellent term papers at the university level attempt to ask questions and promote further exploration into the topic addressed. If, on the other hand, your interest lies in treatment of autism, your research and ultimate writing will lead you in another direction.

Sound Term Paper Writing Begins with Research – Do Not Scrimp!

You have probably been given a minimum number of resources that must be used.  You will also probably access more than this minimum number as you conduct your initial research, because you will have to narrow the resources down to those that are the best fit for your question or thesis.  Professors are always impressed with primary resources – those from individuals who have conducted original research in the field of your topic or, in the case of something historical, original documents.  Secondary resources are certainly acceptable, of course, but at least one primary resource will impress!  At the graduate level, primary resources should be the only ones used!

As you conduct your research, be careful to carve out sub-topics and to organize the information/data you retrieve into those sub-topics.  Headings of sub-topics at the top of note cards, for example, are an excellent method of synthesizing the research once it is complete.  Always be certain that you note the source, page number, etc. on each card.

An Essay Term Paper is Ready to Write Once an Outline has been Constructed

While some truly left-brained souls can write a paper without an outline, most of us must have a skeleton for organizing information and data in a cohesive and fluent manner.  The outline is “tried and true” and will keep you on track as you write.  Without an outline, it is too easy to lose the flow, and the resulting product will not be sequentially structured.  Do yourself a favor and create an outline, even if it is very brief.  You will be glad you did!  Generally, the outline should place the sub-topics in order of importance, so that your most important points come early on. 

A Perfectly Written Term Paper is NOT Your First Draft

Unless you are the most exceptional writer on the planet, your first draft is just that – a draft!  Once written, you will have to revise several times before it is ready to submit.  While your word processing program may catch most spelling and grammatical errors, it will not catch them all, and you need to be vigilant in your reading and proofing.  Have another set of eyes read through your paper as well.  This is perhaps the best way to know if it is soundly structured, well-organized, and if your question or thesis has really been addressed.

Once the body of the paper is “good to go,” you will start on your introduction and conclusion.  The introduction is eminently important because you must “hook” your reader as well as provide the thesis or question that resulted in your work.  Beginning with a short anecdote or a startling fact is always good.  For example, “psychiatrists now believe that 1 out of every 6 children born today will develop some form of autism.”  OR “Johnny was a normal happy infant until the age of 14 months.  At that point, he ceased to communicate in any way – no smiles, no frowns, and no gibberish so common to a toddler.”  Your reader will be motivated to read on, and this is exactly what you want.

Your conclusion should re-state your question, provide any answers that your research gave, and perhaps provide additional questions still to be answered by research.  It need not be lengthy, but it should wrap up your work nicely.

Write Your Final Draft

Once you have produced the final copy, be certain that all in-text and end-of-text citations have been formatted in the style required.  It’s the little things that can irritate a professor, so don’t irritate him/her with something that is so easily done right!

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