Mastering the Modern Term Paper

Mastering the Modern Term Paper


Second only to taking exams, many students dread tackling term papers. Oftentimes these two events coincide with the end of a class, invoking stress and many late nights fueled by coffee. And while term papers exceed other types of papers in terms of length, depth, and synthesis, they do not have to be more difficult to write, or indeed to master.

Many students believe writing term papers is difficult; this is a common misconception. Just because it’s a longer, more involved paper doesn’t mean it’s impossible. As with any multi-part writing assignment, the key to success is to break the assignment into manageable parts and complete each part before moving onto the next one. Need some term paper help? Check out these tips to mastering the modern term paper.

Defining the Term Paper

Term papers are research-based papers that focus on synthesizing a variety of sources to support an idea. Purdue’s Online Writing Lab provides an excellent guide to writing term papers. Thesis statements should present a clear argument in the opening paragraph. The following paragraphs each work to support the thesis by providing evidence from reliable sources. A term paper is not a summary of sources or an opinion paper. In fact, this writing form aims to synthesize sources in a way that provides a new, unique perspective on the topic. Sometimes the most time-consuming aspect of writing a term paper involves the research and evaluation of sources.

Before beginning your research, you need to know what type of term paper your professor assigned. Two main types of research papers exist: the argumentative paper and the analytical paper. Let’s take a brief look at each.

  • Argumentative Papers

These term papers focus on taking a stance and defending it through many paragraphs offering an array of support. This type of paper aims to persuade its audience of the argument set forward in the thesis. The topics of argumentative papers focus on clearly debatable issues. In selecting a topic for this type of paper, it’s important to avoid topics that are clearly one-sided.

  • Analytical Papers

These term papers focus on asking an open-ended question rather than presenting a thesis statement. As the paper progresses, the writer presents sources, explores how they relate to the question, and evaluates their relativity to answering the question. At the paper’s conclusion, the writer does not attempt to persuade the audience of his or her research; the papers allows the reader to make up his or her own mind based on the source material provided.

Beginning to Write

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Many students find pre-assigned topics easier than deciding on a topic themselves. Narrowing down a topic and ensuring that enough sources exist can be a daunting task. It’s a good idea to begin researching sources before committing to any topic; the more you research, the more you’ll be able to hone the argument or question presented in the paper. Do you want to know more? Check out this ultimate guide outlining the aspects of a well-written term paper.

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Term paper writing exists as a marathon rather than a sprint. And like a marathon, you need to prepare. Brainstorming approaches to your topic, takes copious notes that credit sources correctly, and creates a detailed outline organizing notes and primary/secondary source material. Once you’ve completed the leg work and gathered your research it’s time to tackle actually writing the paper.

Writing the Term Paper

Before actually crafting your research into well-written paragraphs, take a moment to consider your audience. Of course, your professor, the individual grading the paper is important, but so is the wider audience. Ask yourself what general audience should this paper reach? Who would be most interested in the information discussed? How can you best maintain interest in this topic? Once you’ve considered these questions, begin the writing process by familiarizing yourself with the assignment’s rubric. Be clear what your professor expects. After you clearly understand the assignment, it’s time to begin transitioning your notes into logical paragraphs.

Term papers rely heavily on research which the writer synthesizes within and among paragraphs. Such research may come from primary and secondary sources. All research, whether included as a direct quotation (included word for word) or as a summary should be cited within the text according to your professor’s or the subject’s preferred citation method. It’s a good idea to use index cards when researching; as you jot notes down you can immediately cite the material. Different sources require different citation methods, which can be tricky. First, know the expected citation method: American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) or another type. Check out the resources that Cornell University recommends to its students here. Once you know the kind of citation method required, you can use the following website to help you generate accurate research citations.

Term papers often take several drafts to edit for consistency, flow, and mechanics. Be sure to set aside time to review your work; sometimes it’s hard to catch your own mistakes, so ask classmates to review your work as well. Check in with your professor too — use his or her scheduled office hours to meet and discuss the direction of your paper!

Formatting the Term Paper

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Most term papers begin with a title page. Title pages typically contain the title, the class, the professor, and your name. Different professors may require different items; check the rubric. Some professors may require an abstract, which is a summary of the entire paper. Next, comes a page long (or more) introduction to the topic. At the end of introduction, the writer presents the thesis or question he or she will be exploring in the paper. Following the introduction are pages of research organized from weakest to the strongest argument. The term paper ends with a conclusion. A Works Cited and possibly a Bibliography section ends the term paper. Once you’ve got all the parts together, check your professor’s preferred formatting; some professors may ask for double-spaced TNR font with one-inch margins while others may prefer single-spaced, 1 ½ inch margins in another font. Adhere to any provided guidelines.

Remember: you’re in a marathon and not a sprint. So plan accordingly! Set aside ample time to train: research online and print sources, take notes, correctly cite sources, and compile the notes into a workable sentence outline. Run a few half marathons and create working drafts. Identify weaknesses and eliminate them. Show up on race day and write a term paper that meets all guidelines set forth in the assignment’s rubric. Races are always easier when you prepare, so begin early and develop enough resources to get yourself to the finish line.

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