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Six Steps to a Successful Term Paper

By Charles Hopkins Published 10/23/2007 | Education
Students usually dread term papers, but a few basic steps can make the difference between a ho-hum, poorly organized paper and one that wins praise -- or at least a passing grade -- from your instructor.

The first step is to draft a clear, concise statement of intent -- a summary sentence of what you intend to prove, based on facts derived from your source materials. Every reference, every quote you use, every sentence you write, will build the case to convince your reader of this central premise or opinion. (Make sure you choose something that you have some evidence to back up!) For example, the intent of this article can be stated as: "There are a few basic steps that can improve a student's term paper."

The second step is to make a brief outline. An outline is only a tool -- 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 writing a "killer" term paper, with a couple of additional points jotted beneath each step to flesh it out. Generally, each major point of your outline will correspond to (usually) one paragraph of your paper, assuming each paragraph to consist of at least three sentences, and no more than about five or six.

Gathering and organizing your evidence -- also known as "research" -- is the third step. Most professors like to see a lot of good quotes strung together; stating your intent with more authority than you could say it yourself. The goal is to make your sources do the talking, wherever possible, to build your argument.

Most term papers involve a trip to the library, a lot of 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 to print out your online sources and start highlighting the sections, sentences and phrases that best support your basic premise.

If your paper is based on a work of literature -- say, a play by Shakespeare -- your quotes will be from the work itself primarily. You might quote from another play to support that Shakespeare often used similar imagery, for example, or to contrast one work with another.

No matter what subject you are writing about -- whether science, business, politics, history, psychology, anything -- you should be able to find relevant quotations from experts in that field. Using a selection of books, magazine articles, research papers, even television transcripts, you can find passages that build your case piece by piece. Once you determine the logical order they go in according to your outline, you are ready to compose your paper.

The fourth step, composing, begins with a first paragraph that states your intent, introducing what you are setting out to prove and summarizing, briefly, the nature of your evidence. From there, each paragraph will follow your outline: state a point that supports the premise, back it up with suitable quotations, and lead into your next major point. When you have finished constructing your argument, the last paragraph summarizes the journey. According to the old cliché, you say what you're going to say, you say it (with evidence), and then you say what your said.

Your skill in leading into and out of your supporting quotations will contribute to the flow of the paper, and can be the difference between a "C" and an "A." Vary your sentence structure by using both simple statements and more complex sentences with clauses set off by commas or dashes. Read your paper aloud at least once to make sure it sounds right, makes sense, and uses quotations effectively.

The fifth step is to document your sources, either with footnotes (on the bottom of the page where each quote appears) or end notes (listed at the end of your paper by number). Thankfully, modern software makes footnoting much easier than the days when you had to type your papers and leave enough room for the footnotes. 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 all of your sources generally, all the books and authors you read for background, even if you did not quote from them directly. A thorough and precise record of your research will often impress your instructor as much or more than the actual paper, because it demonstrates thoroughness, organization and breadth of study. In other words -- you did your homework!

The sixth and final step is to finalize your essay according to the correct style and format requested by your instructor. As a student, a general stylebook such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, or any of a number of other guides, will prove invaluable to you. Or, simply do an Internet search by "term paper style" and many such resources pop up to assist you with those tedious questions about footnotes, punctuation marks and grammar that may come up while you write.

You may never get over the impulse to groan when your professor mentions the dreaded words, "term paper." But by breaking down this onerous task into a few basic steps -- stating your main intent, outlining points, organizing evidence, composing, documenting your sources and following style guides -- you can transform a chore into a well-earned passing grade. Or better!