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How to Write a Better Term Paper

Sep 11, 2008
Most students dread writing a term paper. Learning a few basic steps can make the difference between writing a poorly disorganized term paper into one that wins praise -- or at least a passing grade -- from your professor.

STEP 1: Write a clear, concise statement of intent; this is a sentence summarizing what you intend to prove, based on facts derived from your source materials. Every reference, every quote you use, every sentence you write, will further convince your reader of this central premise or opinion. (Make sure you choose a topic that you can support with evidence!) For example, you can state the intent of this article is: "A few basic steps can improve a student's term paper."

STEP 2: Make a brief outline. An outline is only an organizing tool, so don't obsess over its format, just jot it down to organize your thoughts. The outline for this article, for example, might look as simple as a list of the major steps to write a proper term paper, with a couple of points written briefly beneath each step to flesh it out. Generally, each major point of your outline will correspond to one paragraph of your paper, assuming each paragraph consists of at least three sentences, and no more than five or six.

STEP 3: Gather and organize your evidence -- also known as "research." Most professors like to see many good quotes strung together, accentuating your intent with more authority than you could say yourself. The goal is to make your sources do the talking, wherever possible, to strengthen your argument.

Most term papers involve a trip to the library, many sticky notes on the pages, photocopied pages, or at least, some extensive computer searching on your topic. You may choose to organize your research on index cards, or print out your online sources and start highlighting the sections, sentences and phrases that best support your basic premise.

If you base your paper on a work of literature - for example, a play by Shakespeare - then you will derive your quotes from the work itself. You might pull quotes from another play to support a fact, such as Shakespeare often used similar imagery, or to contrast one work with another.

No matter what subject you write about -- science, business, politics, history, psychology, etc. -- you should find relevant quotations from experts in the field. Selecting books, magazine articles, research papers, even television transcripts, can help you find passages that build your case piece by piece. Once you order your expert quotations logically according to your outline, you are ready to compose your paper.

STEP 4: Composing your term paper begins with a first paragraph that: 1) states your intent; 2) introduces what you are setting out to prove; and 3) summarizes the nature of your evidence. From there, each paragraph will follow your outline: state a point that supports the premise, support it with suitable quotations, and lead into your next major point. When you have finished constructing your argument, the last paragraph summarizes the journey.

Your skill to lead the reader into and out of your supporting quotations will contribute to the flow of the paper. Superb organization can be the difference between receiving a grade of "C" and an "A." Vary your sentence structure. Use both simple statements and complex sentences. Use commas or dashes to vary sentence length. Read your paper aloud at least once to make sure it sounds right, makes sense, and uses quotations effectively.

STEP 5: Document your sources with footnotes (on the bottom of the page where each quote appears) or end notes (listed at the end of your paper by number). Modern software makes footnoting and creating front and back matter a breeze. Your notes show where you obtained each quote -- the author, book or magazine, publisher, date of publication and page numbers.

A bibliography, also at the end of the paper, lists your sources, including books and authors you read for background information. Providing a thorough and precise record of your research will often impress your professor because he will quickly notice your thoroughness, organization and breadth of study. In other words -- you did your homework!

STEP 6: Finalize your essay according to the correct style and format requested by your instructor. As a student, a general stylebook such as APA Style, Chicago Style, or MLA Style will prove invaluable to you. Otherwise search the Internet by "term paper style" and you can find answers to tedious questions about footnotes, punctuation marks and grammar.

You no longer need to groan when your professor mentions the dreaded words, "term paper." By breaking down this taxing task into basic steps -- stating your main intent, outlining points, organizing evidence, composing, documenting your sources, and following style guides -- you can transform this chore into acing your term paper with ease.
About the Author
Brian Scott is a contributing writer for http://www.LousyWriter.com, a free website on how to write better. He recommends college students visit http://www.MasterFreelancer.com for APA Style Software to help with term paper citations and formatting.
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