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How to Write a Term Paper - Some Guidelines


Writing papers may well be the opportunity for you to learn more about the subject you are studying than any other aspect of a course. It is worth doing well. You not only learn more, you also think more deeply about a topic when you have to put words on paper. Finally good grades depend on good papers.

I. Collecting Information

Opinion is a fine thing, but in a college paper your opinions are only worthwhile if they are backed up by facts and arguments. You must collect information, and, since many topics will be new to you, it is worthwhile looking at the work and opinions of more than one author. You should certainly look at your textbook but also at other authors. Your professors will always be willing to give suggestions.

As well as your textbook, you should learn to use the library as a source of information. Make it a top priority to learn how to find a book in the Library.

II. Recording Information

It is no use to just read a book and then write. You must record what you read so that you can review it before and during the writing of the paper. There are a number of ways to do this:

- You can mark the book - only if it is your own copy or a photocopy - with pencils or highlighting pens. You cannot use this method on Library books and it is of limited use as it can be difficult to locate what is really important if you have marked up half a book. It also reduces the resale value of books.

- You can use 3"x5" index cards and note down one, or a series of connected facts, on a card. You then use the cards to organize the information in the way you want to use it in the paper. One problem is that you may get bogged down in detail. The other is that it can be difficult to review index cards at examination time. In general this is the method that is successful for most people. Make sure that you note down on each card the source of your information or you lose track of what each card means.

- Finally you can try to summarize a chapter on letter or legal paper. You can note down both facts and arguments at length. This system can be cumbersome if you take a lot of notes, but is very good for reviewing before exams.

III. Thinking About the Topic

After you have read as much as you need, DO NOT just start to write. Think about what you have read, mull over it on a walk, or discuss it with friends. The professor already knows about what you are writing and is looking to see how well you have understood a topic. It is no use at all to just present your reading notes stuck between an introduction and a conclusion.

Thinking about it is the most important stage of writing a paper.

IV. The Plan

Sketch out on paper several ways of presenting your topic and your thoughts. You might think of doing this as a connected argument, or as a series of related headings organised in a way that makes sense of what you read. Another useful approach is to state, prove and defend a thesis.

You must always write out a plan. It will help you to be clearer both in papers and in tests. It is in fact another way of thinking about your topic.

V. Writing and Editing

You cannot expect to just write out a paper and hand it in. Typo's alone will demand at least one re-type. So why not throw out the idea that what you write must be perfect first time?

It is a good writing technique to just WRITE down your thoughts as they come into your head (always keeping an eye on your paper plan). Do not stop to edit or correct spelling and grammatical mistakes. WRITING and EDITING are different skills. Even though you may think what you are writing is bad or plain stupid, once you have got it down on paper you can go back and look at what you have written. At that stage you can begin to knock it into shape, correct spelling and grammar and improve your style. Almost everybody thinks that what they are writing is bad at the time they write it: your aim is to find a way around this mental block.

You should note that in an exam, conditions force you to write and edit at the same time, however, the technique described here should help to improve your confidence in writing.

VI. Finishing Touches

Before you hand a paper in make sure it looks good - use the Stylesheet handed out separately. Eliminate spelling and grammatical errors. Make sure all your references are noted. Add a booklist. Type the paper cleanly.