Term Paper Basics

Read your term paper out loud, if you can (Photo by _karora)

At some point in your distance learning career, you will probably be tasked with writing a term paper. Putting together a quality paper requires combining a few sets of skills. You will need to exercise your native curiosity, brush up on your note-taking skills, add in a bit of brainstorming, build a reasoned argument, then cast a critical eye over your rough efforts, honing them to polished perfection.

Step One: Pick a topic. Your professor will tell you what the purpose of the paper is in the assignment. You must then decide who your audience will be. With these two elements in place, you can narrow what you want to discuss. If you have no idea what you want to say, or to whom you want to address it, jump to Step Two for ideas. You can return Step One once you have your research in hand.

Step Two: Research. If you have no clue about your topic except for the name of the subject, you can start with Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia can give you some basic information about your subject, and refer you to some of the primary sources that you will end up citing. As you read, ask who, what, where, when, and how to give some direction to your thoughts. As you take notes, paraphrase wherever you can. Using your own words to explain a thought ensures that you comprehend the author’s idea, and helps prevent plagiarism.

Step Three: Outline. Jot down what you want your paper to say, with references to your notes that provide support for that statement. Once you have a basic roadmap, shift everything around until it follows a logical order. Continue writing until you’ve filled in the gaps.

Step Four: Draft. Start writing, and don’t stop until you’ve entered everything from your outline.

Step Five: Revise. Read your paper. Check for logical consistency and order throughout. If there any sidelines that stray from your main thoughts, get rid of them.

Step Six: Add your own insights. If ideas or questions don’t come easily, check secondary sources to see whether something pops up.

Step Seven: Edit. Check over your work for grammatical inconsistencies. Make sure that you’ve used an active voice, that sections follow a logical order, that the same tense is used throughout, and that transitions from paragraph to paragraph flow smoothly.

Step Eight: Check the format. Make sure that the entire paper follows the assigned format.

Step Nine: Give it a rest. Set the paper aside for a time.

Step Ten: Edit again. Re-read the paper with an eye toward run-on sentences, sentence fragments, extraneous words and thoughts, and anything else that seems out of place. If it doesn’t belong, cut it out. If you put thought into your thesis & arguments, you won’t have to dazzle with purple prose.

Step Eleven: Proofread. Check over every sentence and every word. Make sure that your paper says you mean it to say, and that you are using the correct words correctly.

See the Purdue Academic Writing website for an extensive, detailed primer on term papers.

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