How to Write a Decent Term Paper

Read The Syllabus! Professors almost always provide specific written guidelines for length, focus, format etc. for each and every paper they assign. If they don't, they pay major dues when it's time to grade them. If we don't tell you the requirements, ask! Maybe we just zoned out and forgot to mention it. These requirements may vary dramatically from class to class, and from semester to semester. Did you already read the syllabus? Read it again, carefully.

Pick The Right Topic. Make sure that you find this topic genuinely interesting, or find some aspect of it that is especially cool. By the time you finish your research and writing, you might well be genuinely sick to death of your topic (ask any graduate student who's just completed a dissertation!). But if you're bored when you start, you've already defeated yourself, and turned a potentially interesting assignment into yet more drudgery.

Skim Your Textbook, look over the syllabus, read the newspaper, look through recent issues of relevant journals and magazines, surf the net, watch the evening news, talk to your classmates and friends, find a spare half hour of peace and quiet to just sit under the stars and think - these are all good potential sources for paper topics. If all else fails, talk to the teacher. We're full of good ideas. That's why they pay us such huge salaries (narf).

Narrow Down Your Topic. Many good ideas are wasted because students have a hard time focusing on a narrow enough topic. If your topic is way too broad, try homing in on some part of that topic, and exploring that area in more depth. If cloning is too broad for a five page paper, what about cloning Elvis? On the other hand, don't turn in fifteen pages on cloning Elvis. Fit the idea to the space provided, and be concise. I'd much rather have a paper that says a lot about a little, than a paper that says a little about a lot.

My Topic is Too Narrow! Generalize to similar or related topics (cloning of humans vs. cloning of animals, unexpected social problems that might result from cloning, technical aspects of cloning, moral or religious issues related to cloning, cloning my girlfriend or boyfriend, etc.). But keep your focus clear throughout. Otherwise, those interesting related issues you delved into might end up looking like window dressing, added only to bring the paper up to its required minimum length. Profs see enough fluff that they generally smell it a mile away. Kind of like a sixth sense, or a really obscure super power. In your first draft, say what you have to say, then punch it up or trim it down as need be.

Organize Your Thoughts In A Good Outline. Outlining is a genuine pain, which I personally put in the same category as cleaning the litter box - a necessary evil. But it actually does help, especially in the early stages of your paper, by forcing you to come to terms with what you want to say about your topic. It can also show you where you will need to apply your research time, and reveal major deficiencies in your approach to your topic. Use it on your first draft to get your bearings, or on your final draft to check the way you’ve organized your paragraphs. Try it. It won't hurt...much.

Research Your Topic Carefully. That big building with all the books? That's the library. Make it your friend. Better yet, cozy up to the librarians. A good library always has a good professional staff, trained to be courteous and helpful, and bright enough to genuinely care about a LOT of topics, and who will expertly direct your search to the right place. Unfortunately, librarians are merely human, working long thankless hours for low pay, so a little patience on your part will go a long way. Remember that most of the interface you deal with aren't really librarians, they're student workers, clerical staff, or whoever else could be dragooned into helping to fill the long hours on the firing line. You should seek out and befriend a competent and helpful reference librarian early on, like Buffy found Giles. If you find that person, the path to the information you will need to graduate will be smoothly paved, and may even turn out to be full of interesting roadside attractions.

Where's the Beef? Each page of your term paper should have around 1-3 references per page, as a general rule of thumb. So figure for ten pages, about 10-15 references and so on. Many papers may have more than that, but if yours has less, you probably skimped in the endless hours in the library department. Even better, papers should draw on a variety of sources, which usually boils down to books, essays, journal articles and/or magazines. No more than one third of your sources should come from magazines or the internet, unless they refer to actual data. If your entire argument is built upon a stack of Newsweeks, it will tremble in the slightest breeze.

Balance Your Sources. Try to use several different types of sources in your research. These would include (but need not be limited to) books, magazine articles, journal articles (really serious magazines), reference books, and the internet. Avoid using too many newspaper articles and magazines wherever you can. Magazines like Time and Newsweek often have good focused articles, but they tend to be laden with unsupported opinions, and written to cause a sensation rather than to reveal the truth. Don't ignore the government documents collection. For raw data and spirited opinion, government documents can't be beat. Your tax dollars fund a mountain of research, good, bad, and indifferent, and the results of all of that research end up in the government documents department of the library. Collections of state documents can also be an invaluable source for certain topics, such as local environmental problems.

No More Paper Cuts From the Card Catalog. Modern university libraries have most of their collections online. Every university library has its own database for books and journals. Consult the online catalog first to see what's available. You can usually dial into it from your home PC. Sign out those library books and copy those journal articles early on in the process, or you may find some prof has absconded with the only copy of your best source, and good luck getting it back before Christmas. Or some bozo has neatly cut out every article on your hot topic (which, by an odd coincidence, was the hot topic for thirty other students just last semester).

What's a Keyword Search, and Why Should I Care? If you have a specific title or author, it's pretty easy to type it in an online catalog or database, and see what happens. But most of the time, what you have is a genuinely fuzzy idea, and that's where keyword searches come in real handy. Every library has at least one keyword-searchable index of magazines and journals, and may even have a special index that covers your subject area. Use them. Try typing in the words that come closest to your topic, and see what happens. If you get zip, try thinking of alternate terms, synonyms, slang etc. that might relate to the topic in a major way. Usually you get way too much, because in our haste to get everything online, we've indexed everything to death. So a search on alligators turns up everything from wildlife to recipes. Make sure you read the search screen for the online system you are using, because many online indexes and catalogs ask you to click on Keyword Search or something similar, before sending the surfer in search of the prize. Speaking of which, don’t ignore the internet search engines like Dogpile ( and Google ( I like Ingenta Uncover (check the list of the main library’s online indexes). It lets me keyword search a huge list of sources (including lots of stuff that's not in the library), lets me scan titles of individual issues of journals, and even (for a fee) lets me order photocopies of articles online, or get their table of contents regularly delivered to my email box. Whew. Nice morning's work.

Some Hot Tips To Enhance Your Quest For Fire: Try using a little logic - Boolean logic, that is. That means using the search terms AND, OR, and NOT in addition to your keywords. So OR can be used to build up a pool of likely hits (desert or sweets or candy). AND can be used to combine two terms together, and pull out only those hits that mention both terms, narrowing down the results, like: (desert or sweets or candy) AND chocolate. Some indexes let you use NOT to filter out some category you don't need, like: [(desert or sweets or candy) AND chocolate] NOT cake. Most online indexes use some version of Boolean searching.

Yet Another In a Continuing Series of Hot Library Tips. Try truncating your search terms. That means lopping off the last letter or so, and sticking on a "wild card" which says "this plus any variation of this", such as plural forms. So psych* would be searched as psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy, all at the same time. But it would also drag in psychotic, psychobabble and psychosomatic, so use truncation with caution. Every system has a different "wild card" character (usually a ? or a *) for truncating a keyword.

Not Every Library Has Every Book Or Journal, or every issue of every journal. Find out what sources are NOT available locally, but potentially valuable to your paper. You can order a copy of any book or journal article through the library's inter-library loan department. Ask at the reference/information desk about this service. The rules and fees vary, and there may be photocopy fees or other restrictions. BUT remember that these ILL transactions take lots of time. It can take several weeks to get the material you need from another library. As the semester progresses, and more students and faculty gradually realize they also need this service, it quickly slows down under the load. Try and guess how much of your tuition went into beefing up the library staff. If you send in your requests very early on, you will be have the necessary tools to complete your paper when you're finally ready to begin.

Drag Yourself Into The Bookstacks. Whatever sources you use, build a list of the best references as you go, copying down the library catalog number etc. as you go. Drag those ponderous volumes back out to the copiers, and stand in line behind countless other people who somehow mysteriously realized that they needed to do the exact same thing at the same time you did. Get the jump on the inevitable crowd. Most term papers for most classes end up being due at about the same time. It's like a conspiracy. So remember, one is a study date, two is a study group, but three is a line.

Ask The Prof For Help. What have you got to lose?

Follow Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers for general format and citation formats. There are copies in the library, and the campus bookstore usually has some in stock. Check the textbook section also, as some classes might require this book. It is a boiled down version of the Chicago Style Manual (University of Chicago Press). The library will also have the expanded version, probably on the reference shelves.

Neatness Does Count - Spelling and grammar will be considered in grading your paper. The point of writing papers is to teach you to organize your thoughts, and express them in a clear and coherent fashion, in the proper style. Be sure to insert page numbers, and check for “widows and orphans, lines stranded at the top or bottom of the page. Every word processor has a spelling checker. Use it on your final draft!

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is highly recommended for general help with basic grammar, composition, and style. Copies of this little book are available in the library and most bookstores, and I recommend it to you very highly. There are also many etext versions available on the web, like the one at If your general composition and grammar skills are weak or rusty, this little volume all by itself (if you take its simple lessons to heart) could raise your score by an entire letter grade for every term paper you do from here on out!

Back Up Your Ideas As Well As Your Files. Most of us, including opinionated junior faculty members, lack the authority to back up our ideas on every subject. That's why we need to research the topic, and pool together the expert opinions that are available, together with some hard data to support or refute those opinions. You must clearly reference all substantial information in your paper, whether fact or opinion. If you borrowed it from someone else, you need to reference the source, even if it's not a direct quote. Direct quotations, by the way, are not only allowed but encouraged, as long as they are referenced.

Write That Cite Right. Turabian's style manual will have several examples of how to reference or "cite" every conceivable type of material you could drag into your paper, including internet sources. And by the way, depending on your topic, quotations from a personal interview with a genuine authority on your topic, whether phone time or face time, will dazzle your basic professor to the point where all those minor errors scattered elsewhere through your paper will become all but invisible.

Edit, Edit, Edit. Did I remind you to edit? Well, do it again. Buff that mud puppy 'till it shines. Go over it until it positively glows with authority, logic, and information, until it shines so brightly I can grade it in the dark. THEN hand it in. And don't take it personally when I hand it back all marked up and re-edited. You learn by trying. Plus, I always respect genuine effort, even if the delivery is a bit shaky.

Plagiarism Is A Bad Idea. Remember, if you are tempted, that any prof can easily search the same paper mills, and (as trained professionals) can often smell a rat when a dead one is left in the stack (Plagiarism Squad, ma'am, Division Six!). Plagiarism results in an automatic F, and is usually reported to the honor board. Plagiarism means stealing someone else's ideas and parading them as your own. It is not only dishonest, but it deprives you of the opportunity to develop a set of writing and research skills that will help you throughout your entire life, in school and on the job. If you can express yourself well in writing, you have a real advantage over other prospective employees when you enter the job market. This is your big chance to develop these skills, in an environment where your future income is not on the line. Good research always cites where the information came from, so the reader (and professor) will know which authorities were consulted, what they had to say on the subject, and when and where they said it.

Back Up Your Work. Make at least two physical copies (floppies or zip disks) of your work, in addition to the copy on your hard drive. I usually keep two active copies on my hard drive: a working copy, which I save every few minutes, and a backup copy, which I update once an hour or so. I also keep a floppy copy which I update every fifteen or twenty minutes. You should change the settings on your word processor to automatically save your work in a temporary file every minute or two (usually under "Options" or Preferences" in the menu). This little trick has saved me hours and hours of lost work and time. I also keep an second floppy copy that I update update once or twice a week. I keep the second copy in a separate building, so the entire city has to be destroyed by Godzilla and Rodan before I lose my work. Be paranoid.

OK, Be Really Paranoid! Backup your backups. Assume that the hurricane will knock out the power and kill your only copy as you go to print up the final draft. In the immortal words of Alfred E. Neumann, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't following you." I once lost an entire chapter of a book because the master file was corrupted, so all the backups I made from it were toast. Fortunately, I had a printout of the chapter, so I could type in the earlier version, and recovered most of my work. Print your draft as it nears completion. It's easier to edit, and it might save your bacon!

Write From The Heart. Your paper (for better or worse) should be a reflection of yourself. If your topic is important enough to you to spend all that time researching and writing about, let your feelings show. Anybody can throw together a pile of photocopied articles and piece a paper together from their spare parts. Make this a labor of love. Well OK, sincere affection. Whatever. Try to get into it, you have to endure the process in any event. Your opinions are important too (surprise!). In some respects, your opinions are the most important part of the paper. If you don't genuinely care about your topic, you're going to have a hard time getting me excited about it when I have to sit down and read your paper. It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing.

© B. E. Fleury 1999, all rights reserved by the author.

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