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
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
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
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!