WRITING TERM PAPERS
Of the many forms of student evaluation - examinations, lab work, class presentations or projects - it is the written essay or term-paper which sometimes causes the most anxiety. In reality, however, it is "the paper" which affords you the greatest freedom of expression, the most effective and satisfying method of developing your knowledge concerning a given subject, and the most gentle and leisurely means of being evaluated by your professor. The anxiety comes in only when you are unaware of, or fail to implement, the key steps to writing a paper. These are as follows:
- Time-Determination - Determining the amount of time you will need to reserve for the assignment is the first step. You must get an idea of how long your professor wants your paper to be. Does your professor expect an original analysis of some subject, or only a reiteration of some information provided to you in the class lectures or textbook? Do you need footnotes and a bibliography? Will the paper be single- or double-spaced? The answer to these questions will make it possible for you to calculate how much time you need to gather information, organize the structure of the paper, write it, and refine it. In making your time-determination, it is usually a good strategy to double your original guess as to how much time you think you may need. A second and very important strategy is to leave, as a precaution, a block of time open around the paper's due-date. By doing this, you can feel more confident that you will have enough time to complete "something," even if everything else fails to go according to your preconceived plans. This tactic is often critical in allowing you to feel relaxed enough to move through the paper-writing phase without unproductive worry and speed. Very often, you will find that this time will be available to you for either relaxation or getting other work done - especially after you have mastered this simple process and already have written a number of papers. It becomes second nature.
- Topic-Determination - Now you want to find something to write about. If your paper topic is given to you by your professor, then you want to address this topic in a way that is of interest to you. Find some aspect of the material that is relevant to you. Explore your textbook, notes, or other reading materials to find a point of entry into the topic which you find relevant. Even if you need to report on a body of dry facts, or present a drab quantitative analysis, you should try to look at your written presentation as an opportunity to communicate your mastery of such details and display your ability to present it with eloquence and style. Remember, paper-writing is the most mature and intimate form of evaluation. Your paper is a transaction with your professor, who is not merely trying to get you to learn how to write well: your professor, rather, is asking you to think independently and creatively and is willing to invest much more of his/her time in following your thoughts and line of reasoning. Motivation, therefore, is the key to writing good papers; without it, your paper will be, at best, dull. If, on the other hand, your professor permits you to determine your own topic around the course material, then your opportunity to shine is greatly enhanced.
- Gathering Information - Now you're ready to begin the research part of your paper. This is the exploratory phase. First, how do you go about finding the best reading sources around your topic? This is accomplished by spending a solid afternoon or evening in the library seeking out your information sources. Your information search will ultimately consist in a growing list of potential books, journal articles, magazines, and so forth, which you will then need to locate, review, and perhaps incorporate into your paper and reference. A good place to start this process is by reviewing the books used for your class; however, in addition to perusing the content of your textbooks, you may want to find a library book or encyclopedia article which addresses your subject in a way you find interesting. Be sure to examine the bibliographies in your textbook, library book, or article, because it is there where related books or articles can be found. Perhaps the most effective method of locating important (but otherwise "hard to find") references is to use your library's computer search technology - such computer databases can swiftly locate articles and other sources which are related to your chosen topic. In the beginning of your search, it is helpful to find books and articles that are most recent and present a general approach or "overview" of your topic. For example, if you are writing a paper on, say, the pharmacological treatment of anxiety disorders, you would save yourself much time by looking up the most recent journal article whose very title announces just such a "review" or "overview" of the subject matter to date. Such articles do most of the work for you, and they provide the most organized, relevant, and recent bibliography resources possible. Remember, your journal article references need to be relatively recent or represent theoretical milestones, and the books you reference should be "classics" in the field or be written by academically established authors. Remember to make a list of the references you will use for your paper: you will need to include them in your bibliography (see below).
- Organizing the Information - Write a general outline of your paper, putting the development of your discussion in order of presentation. Leave room in your outline to add things or move things around - this outline will probably become messy with changes, but you can make it clean when you finally arrive at the contents and the order of contents you want. Your outline should mirror the standard structure of an academic essay, which consists in an introduction, the main body, and the conclusion. This is where you actually begin writing your paper.
- Writing the Paper - In the introduction, you want to present in a paragraph or two the background information surrounding your topic and state what your specific focus (thesis, hypothesis, or argument) will be and what the relevance this focus has to the more general subject area. It is here that you tell your reader what you plan to argue or establish and what steps you are going to take in order to achieve this. The bulk of your paper consists in the systematic delineation of your main purpose, argument, thesis, etc., as stated in your introductory paragraph or paragraphs. The paragraphs making up the body of your paper should gradually add support for, and clarification of, your main thesis. Similarly, each paragraph begins with a "topic sentence," which indicates what the purpose of the paragraph is - and each sentence in each paragraph should likewise add support and clarity to the paragraph's topic sentence. (Remember that this is the "ideal structure" of a term paper. Don't attempt to make every sentence and paragraph fit perfectly into this schema - good writing cannot be reduced to such a formula!) And, lastly, the conclusion brings you back once again to the main points described in your introduction - except that now you want to leave the details of the papers body and rise again to the more general level. You are done providing new information in support of your thesis and are rapping things up. In addition to restating the main objectives of your paper and reviewing briefly the central points or arguments made in support of your thesis, you want in your conclusion to state once again how your topic is relevant to the broader issues surrounding your paper topic. Now, with this threefold structure of your paper in mind, you should return to your previously prepared outline. Following your outline, begin writing out the content of your paper. Once again, don't worry if it looks rough - it's only beginning to come into being. If you think of more information or discussion which you need to add, you might just add an asterisk, or star, or other symbol in the body of the rough draft; you can then write out what you want to add in those marked areas on a separate piece of paper, which you can later incorporate into your paper during your next re-write.
- Prepare References/ Bibliography – Lastly, you need to supply at the end of your paper an alphabetical reference list of all the sources you cited in the textual body of your paper: if a bibliography is required, then this list needs to include all materials you consulted, even if they are not cited directly within the text of your paper. In addition to providing notations for ideas derived by other authors, you also need to provide citations for imported or re-presented graphs, tables, charts, and the like. You should be aware of the fact that there are a number of different documentation formats. If you look at different journals, for instance, you will find that they employ different formats in how they make their citations and construct their bibliography. You should make a point of asking your professor if there is a specific style you need to follow. Oftentimes, your professor will not specify the style. In such cases, you will need to find a documentation format that is suitable for the subject matter of your paper. There are two basic subject areas: the arts and the sciences. If your paper is a scientific paper, it is usually recommended that you follow the standard style used by the APA (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). You might want to look at the copy of "Science Style Manuals" located in the Science Library reference area, which will help you identify the appropriate style format for your paper. Alternatively, you might find a documentation style in a specific journal that appears more attractive to you – very often renown journals provide their prospective contributors with their specific documentation format. Whatever style you choose, the key is that you are consistent in following the documentation style with exactness. If you do not have the APA publication manual itself (or alternative), you want to have enough reference examples from your chosen journal that will allow you to find the kind of references that you are using. For example, if you are citing a book by a single author, or a book by multiple authors, or a journal article by multiple authors, or an editing author, or what have you, then you will need to find illustrations of precisely these kinds of references from the journal. Armed with these references, you can then construct your own bibliography by following these examples – but your duplication of the reference structure must be exact down to the periods, commas, underlining, italics, and so on. Unlike a scientific-oriented paper, which only requires citations within the text of your paper and a reference list or bibliography at the very end, a paper written in the humanities allows you the option of supplying your references as either footnotes or endnotes. You use footnotes by referencing your material at the bottom of the page where the citation occurs – these are separated at the bottom of your main textual body by two double-spaces. It is easier, however, to supply your references as endnotes, where your bibliography is provided on a separate page at the very end of your paper – as in the science essay. The standard style of documentation used in these kinds of essays, the humanistic essay, is given by the Modern Language Association (MLA) – here again, you may be free to follow a different documentation format; but, if you do, the key is to follow it exactly and consistently.
William Russell, Senior Counselor