How To Write a Term Paper

A term paper, also known as a research paper, is commonly used as a practical exercise in the art of written communication.  English instructors use term papers to instill a sense of discipline and time management in their students, which is why the deadline for turning in a final draft of a term paper is notoriously tight.  English students are expected to find a suitable thesis, essentially a mission statement for the term paper, and do enough research to support it.  The finished term paper is not always the most important element of the assignment-- it's the organizational process along the way.

Term papers written a generation or two ago were usually quite lengthy, and many English instructors required a significant number of sources and notations.   More recently,  a number of English instructors with higher workloads and larger class sizes have begun to lower some of their source requirements and overall word count, but the process of writing a term paper is still much the same.  Here's how to organize and write an assigned term paper:

  1. Find a suitable and limited thesis.  The keyword here is limited.  Your English instructor may provide a list of acceptable theses, or you may have to do some preliminary research on your preferred subject to create one of your own.  A thesis statement such as "Robert Frost led an exciting and difficult life." would be far too broad and unfocused.  A more limited thesis involving Frost might be "Robert Frost's childhood experiences heavily influenced his poetry."  An even more focused thesis would be "Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken' is based on his own life experiences."

    As soon as you have an approved limited thesis statement, you must prove it at least three different ways for an effective term paper.  Much like a five-paragraph theme, a good term paper should contain at least three different approaches to the theme to be thorough.  In our Frost sample above, you might suggest that Frost's poem was inspired by his childhood, his professional success and his family life.  There may be other aspects, but at least you have three equally important arguments to present.

  2. Create a rough outline.  Once you have your thesis statement broken down into at least three major aspects, you are now ready to create a rough outline for research purposes.  Some English students choose to ignore this step, but they do so at their own peril.  A rough outline should contain the thesis statement, followed by a grid of Roman numerals and English letters arranged in a specific order.  Main ideas are usually assigned Roman numerals I, II, III and so on.

    Below these main ideas are even more specific facts which support them.  Most English instructors require outlines which present at least three main ideas, followed by at least two supportive ideas (A, B, C, etc.).  Below those ideas could be 1s, 2s and 3s, or lowercase a's, b's and c's.  All of these subheadings should support the main ideas above them.  This will be important while doing the actual research.

  3. Find as many sources as you can.  After you have created a rough outline, the real research can begin.  In our example, biographies on Robert Frost and critical reviews of his poetry would be very helpful. Go to a number of libraries and begin reading Frost-related books for content.  Use a 3x5 index card to record the publishing information of the books, then use 4x6 index cards to write down specific quotes and facts which support your main ideas and thesis.

    This is why you want to have a working outline before you begin your actual research.  Whenever you discover a fact or quote or opinion which supports a specific subheading of your outline, write down the letters and numbers of that subheading on the 4x6 notecard itself.  For example, if you find a quote about Frost's childhood, you might write "I, A, 2, b" on the notecard, so you'll know the quote supports the specific idea located on the outline.  If it's a more general quote, you might write "opening paragraph" or "conclusion" to help you sort it out later.

  4. Fulfill all requirements assigned by the instructor.  Make sure you have at least the minimal number of sources and notecards required by your instructor.  Term papers are often graded on more than just content-- your instructor wants to see evidence of research and organization as well.  Besides, having more than enough sources and notecards to construct a term paper is better than not having enough.
  5. Organize all of your notecards according to the outline.  Take all of your notecards and arrange them according to the order and position of your original outline's grid.  Have all of your opening paragraph' s facts and quotes in one pile, followed by your I, II, III ideas and so on.  A good term paper is primarily an organized grouping of quoted facts and figures, with just enough personal input from the writer to help them flow together.  As long as you credit your sources properly and you've taken enough notes, your term paper should practically write itself.
  6. Write a rough draft and review your outline.  The rough draft of a term paper should be rough, not simply a finished draft in search of a good proofreader.  Don't be afraid to rearrange your main ideas or to scrap a weaker idea altogether.  If you need to do more research to flesh out a main idea, now is the time to do it.  During the rough draft phase, you may find yourself simply plugging in the researched quotes and facts without much personal insight.  As you revise your rough draft, look for ways to inject a few sentences of your own between those dry facts.  Use creative transitions to introduce new ideas.
  7. Proofread, spellcheck and polish your final draft.  Once you've had time to rework your outline and find the best mixture of quotes, facts and personal opinion,  put it all in your final draft.  This is the time to concern yourself with mechanics and spelling, so activate any grammar or spellcheck software programs you may own.  Find a second set of eyes to double-check your work.  Remember to create strong opening and closing paragraphs, since they will often be the best examples of your own writing ability.  Make sure you have exceeded the minimal word count and have safely stored a copy of your manuscript before turning in the assignment.


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