How To Write A Term Paper
This guide covers what a term paper is, how to form a title for your term paper, how to decide what to put in your paper, how to conclude your paper and even how to reference your paper correctly.
What is a term paper?
A term paper is a research project that you will be asked to complete at university, following the analysis of various texts and publications on a specific subject (often over the course of a term or semester, as the name suggests) as part of your course. The term paper records your research and provides you with the opportunity to convey your thoughts, findings and opinions on the material you have considered.
It may be that you've been asked to write your first term paper and you're not sure where to start, or you've not studied for a while and you can't remember how best to approach the task. Alternatively, you may already be good at writing term papers but in need of a plan to speed up the process, advice on how to improve your writing skills or polish an existing piece of work.
Whatever your reason for looking for information on term papers, we have put together a comprehensive set of instructions which, if followed, make writing a good term paper a simple and formulaic process.
Forming a title for your term paper
You'll find that sometimes your university gives you the term paper title. In that case, you can skip this section and move on to the next stage of researching and gathering information for your term paper.
If you don't yet have a title, consider this: one of the greatest flaws in students' work is that they choose a subject and then just write all they know about it. How many professional research papers have you come across in the course of your studies entitled 'Philosophy' .. 'Discrimination' .. 'Restorative Justice' ..etc. Indeed, these are topics but they are just not specific enough to get a decent grade. If you want to write a good term paper, the best advice is to pose a question for your title and make sure you answer it. So how do you come up with a good question? Let's take the criminology subject of 'restorative justice' as an example. This means that rather sending people to prison, we look for ways they can 'make amends'. It's a subject on which there is a great deal of debate so it should give us some good results.
You want to base your term paper on something that interests people. Current issues and debates interest people. So let's look on CNN and see what current debates have been raised about restorative justice. We get three results, two of which don't seem to relate to restorative justice and one that most definitely does.
- Confronting the killer of your loved one updated Tue, July 22, 2008 - If someone brutally murdered someone you love, would you have the courage to confront them? Would you even want to? For some victims of violent crimes, these meetings are vital to the healing process.
This is a great start - you could pose various questions for your term paper from this. For example:
- Does restorative justice benefit the victim?
- How does restorative justice balance the needs of the victim with those of the offender?
- Are violent crime offenders appropriate candidates for restorative justice?
Another, indirect result of this would be:
- Why is restorative justice a more established concept in the UK than the US? (a quick search on the UK news site BBC reveals some 57 results, most of which look very relevant so this begs the question whether the views about justice are different in the States as they are in the UK)
Another place to generate ideas for a term paper title is Google itself. A quick search for the term 'restorative justice' reveals a host of information sites that will be rich in news, articles, debates and current developments - and therefore, ideas for your term paper.
Researching/gathering information for your term paper
As a term paper is usually the result of a term's worth of research, with any luck you'll have a good collection of notes and information at your disposal. Unfortunately, not all students are this well organized! So if you haven't already done your term paper research, where do you find the sort of source material that's going to get you an A grade? Libraries are a thing of the past - the Internet is your new best friend.
Most universities will give you an 'athens' password which is a magical key unlocking thousands of research databases all over the world. An amazing list of these sources can be found here:
If you don't have one of these athens passwords, some recommended alternatives are:
- Google Books - these are thousands of scanned books, which you can view and sometimes download, for free
- Amazon.com - you can 'search inside' many books as long as you've made an order before
- Questia - this is a paid service but is pretty cheap and you do get access to thousands of books and journals
When you've gathered together a good selection of information, make sure you then evaluate the quality of it - unless the source material for the term paper topic you have chosen is sparse, you'll need to decide what to include and what not to include in your term paper.
How do I decide what material to include in my term paper?
Filter your source material for your term paper like this:
- Is the material from a reliable source? A published journal IS a reliable source. An Internet web site is NOT a reliable source.
- Is the material up to date? Unless you're writing a term paper on something historical, get rid of anything old and redundant.
- Does the material help answer my proposed term paper question? Ditch anything that's too general. Use only specific, focused sources.
You'll be able to further sift through and sort your findings when you create an outline later - at which point you'll be looking for material to deal with specific points in your term paper.
Refining the topic for your term paper
So you've got a title for your term paper and you've got some relevant research material that will help you build some arguments (and indeed, support them) in your term paper. Is now a good time to change direction?
The answer is, it may well be, for two reasons:
- You didn't find enough research material to answer your proposed term paper question. It may be that the question is actually too narrow and too focused. In this case, you need to rethink your topic and come up with something for which there are more sources to refer to.
- You found too much research material to answer your proposed term paper question. In this case, either you've picked a run-of-the-mill topic, or your topic is way too general. Consider picking something more interesting and niche (sure to catch your lecturer/instructor's attention and spark his imagination) or something more narrow so that you can focus your answer.
Creating an outline and a draft for your term paper
So you're happy with your term paper title and you've conducted the research - what next? The next stage is the most important, most valuable and most time-saving exercise you will conduct and - ironically - the one that most students miss out. If you create a decent outline for your term paper, you will find that the paper actually just writes itself. No effort. Just 'fill in the blanks'. How does this work?
Let's start with a very basic standard term paper structure.
Introduction - here's where you set the scene (introduce the issue) and say what you're going to do.
Body - here's where you do what you said you were going to do in the introduction.
Conclusion - here's where you confirm that you've done what you said you were going to do.
This sounds rather simplistic but it is, in fact, the very basis of most term papers, essays, dissertations, reports, theses, articles, journals and other such material, throughout the world. However! If you start writing your term paper now, on the basis of that plan, you'll have a lot more work to do than if you spend a little more time creating a decent outline.
So let's fill this out a little.
Term Paper Introduction
- Start this with something controversial, something snappy, something interesting - your aim is to grab the reader's attention and make them want to carry on reading your term paper
- Go on to explain the issue - what's your term paper about?
- Explain what you are going to do. Will you prove a point? Will you be looking at various opposing views and weighing up the merits? Spell out exactly what you will achieve in your term paper right here.
Term Paper Body
- This is where the bulk of your arguments go. You need to present them logically. For each argument you present, you need to support this with evidence. The research material you found was the evidence. So each point you make should go something like this:
My point is .....
Evidence in support of this point ... (use: book1, book2, journal1)
Evidence/opinions against this point ... (use: book3, journal2)
Conclude on this point - there is more evidence for/against .. my point is proven because ... etc.
Term Paper Conclusion
- Here's where you not only tell the reader you've done what you said you were going to do, but (if you want a good grade) you also show them. So it goes something like
I/this paper has demonstrated that ... by providing evidence of ..
In conclusion, [ANSWER THE QUESTION]
Don't forget that at this stage you are merely creating a draft, or skeleton, which you will fill out later when you come to actually write the term paper.
Writing your term paper, clearly and concisely
If you've done a good job of your outline, you'll find this bit easy - it literally does write itself. The reason for this is that all you have to do now is fill out the points you have made. Think of your outline as a recipe. The final product - your term paper - is like a plate of cookies. When you sit down to write out the recipe, you'll decide what ingredients are going in, and what utensils a person needs to make the recipe work. This is like your arguments and source materials. When you come to writing the term paper, it's just like carrying out the recipe - and if you've written down everything that you need - all your ingredients and utensils in advance - then actually doing it is the easy bit.
As you flesh out your recipe for a great term paper, keep in mind a few simple rules:
- Keep your topic in mind. Don't digress. Everything you write must be relevant to your topic - not just generally but very specifically.
- Explain yourself. Don't assume the reader knows what's in your head.
- Relax. Don't force yourself to write if you're not in the right frame of mind. Take a bath, read, watch some TV - break the writing into short bursts and don't force it.
- Don't overcomplicate things. Using lengthy, infrequently used words may make your term paper appear clever on the face of it, but your lecturer/instructor will soon know it's just gloss.
- Follow your structure. It may sound obvious but if you've planned your term paper one way, don't go off on a tangent. Whilst you can add in new ideas if they come up, and your term paper may evolve into something better than you planned to begin with, you should stick to the path and make sure that path is a logical progression for your reader.
- Read, reread, say it out loud. Do this as you go - not right at the end. It helps you work out if you're on the right track.
Your term paper is nearly complete. So now what? The next stages are possibly the most important. They can make the difference between a mere pass and a first class outstanding term paper. Don't skimp on time with these stages - if you want to write a brilliant term paper, you need to give them as much time as the other planning and writing stages.
Formatting and referencing your term paper
Most universities do give points for presentation. Now, let's say your content is worth a 65 and there are 5 marks up for grabs for good presentation. That's the difference of a whole grade band in most unis. So don't ignore the formatting - margins, font size and style, headings etc.
Referencing is even more important - because it tells your lecturer/instructor where you got your source materials from for your term paper, and it provides them with evidence of your research. You should check what referencing style your university requires and follow it very closely. Remember that there are usually different styles for different subjects - for example, ACS (American Chemical Society) is frequently used in chemistry, AIP (American Institute of Physics) for physics, AMS, e.g. AMS-LaTeX for maths, and APA (American Psychological Association) for social sciences. Within those styles, each type of publication may be presented slightly differently.
Referencing your sources properly has a number of benefits:-
- it helps add strength and support to the arguments you have presented;
- it ensures you acknowledge ideas and material that belongs to other people and separates this from your own ideas;
- it shows your lecturer/instructor that you have researched the topic properly;
- it allows your reader to locate your sources and do further reading; and, perhaps most importantly,
- you will avoid being accused of plagiarism, i.e. stealing other people's ideas and passing them off as your own!
Whilst every university has its own grading systems, without doubt, you won't get a great mark for your term paper unless you research profusely, use a good selection of quality source material and reference it properly. These are the essential hallmarks of a quality term paper.
Editing and proofreading your term paper
Editing your term paper means going through the paper and cutting out anything that doesn't need to be there. For each section, ask yourself - does this help to answer my term paper question? Is this relevant? If I cut this out, would the term paper be as good?
The language also needs editing carefully for 'waffle'! Here are some tips:
- Condense your work. If you can say something in ten words, don't use twenty. For example:
Prior to the event of the twentieth century, writers who most often used English language would commonly used very long sentences and a very complicated and overly detailed style. In quite a number of other European languages across the globe, such as German, French, Spanish and Dutch, the use of overly long sentences was even more extensive; to take but one example, the philosopher Hegel was very well known for writing sentences that would easily have occupied three pages or even more depending on the size of the pages (89 words)
Wow! This is a long way of saying something that could be summarized in just a few words....
Prior to the twentieth century, English writers commonly used overly long, complex sentences. In several European languages, such as German, such use was prolific. For example, the German philosopher Hegel was known for writing sentences that spanned over three pages (40 words)
The second version says pretty much the same thing as the first but it's more concise, easier to read and doesn't use up so much of your valuable word count.
- Leave out any describing words that just don't need to be there. There is nothing wrong with adding in some emotion when it is appropriate (for example, a 'brutal murder' rather than a 'murder' .. a 'horrific accident' rather than an 'accident') but where the describing word describes something that is obvious already, it becomes padding. For example, the "skilled, tuneful musician" (could there ever be a skilled musician who wasn't tuneful?), or the "cold, wet ice" (on the whole, ice is generally cold and wet!)
- Be careful with linking words. Whilst you do need to link your paragraphs together, so that your term paper has a logical structure the reader can follow, you don't need to use such an impressive selection of nonsensical words that the reader's attention is drawn more to them than to the actual content. There is a place for them but they should not be overused. Here are some examples:
Also .. additionally .. similarly .. moreover .. furthermore - the latter two are quickly becoming redundant and should be avoided. If you use similarly, also or additionally in your term paper, make sure the point you are making really is an additional or similar point to the one you have just made.
However .. although .. on the other hand .. yet .. nevertheless .. in contrast .. - use these words in your term paper if you are making a contrast to a previous point. DON'T use them at the start of a paragraph.
Consequently .. therefore .. as a result .. so .. - use these words to draw a conclusion in your term paper on a specific issue, but make sure you are actually concluding at the end of your assessment of a particular issue - not just linking together the paragraphs as this won't work.
Finally, make sure you run a comprehensive spelling and grammar check on your term paper. Proofread and proofread again - read your term paper out loud to yourself or to a friend and make sure it is clear, understandable and logical. It's no good having great ideas if they can't be understood - so if you can't write English very well, ensure you have had the work checked over thoroughly by someone who can.
Follow this advice and you'll be well on your way to producing an excellent term paper that achieves the grade you deserve.
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