Procedure for Writing a Term Paper

  Alton L. Raygor, University of Minnesota

A term (or research) paper is primarily a record of intelligent reading in several sources on a particular subject. The task of writing one is not as difficult as it seems, if you think it out in advance as a process with definite steps.

The procedure for writing such a report consists of the following steps:

    1. Choosing a subject
    2. Finding sources of materials
    3. Gathering the notes
    4. Outlining the paper
    5. Writing the first draft
    6. Editing the paper

Now let's look at each of them.

Choosing a Subject

Most good papers are built around questions. You can find subjects in any textbook. Simply take some part of the text that interest you and examine it carefully. Ask yourself the following things about it to see if you can locate a question to answer in your paper.

- Does it tell you all you might wish to learn about the subject?
- Are you sure it is accurate?
- Does the author make any assumptions that need examining?
- Can two of the more interesting sections in the text be shown to be
  interrelated in some useful way?

Your paper is an attempt to write a well-organized answer to whatever question you decide upon, using facts for the purpose of proving (or at least supporting) your contention.

The most common error made by students in choosing a subject for a term paper is to choose one that is too general. (Even the most specific subject will always have enough aspects to furnish a long paper, if you think about it for a while.)

Finding Sources of Materials

1. Limitations. Tradition suggests that you limit your sources to those available on the campus and to those materials which are not more than 20 years old, unless the nature of the paper is such that you are examining older writings from a historical point of view.
2. Guides to sources.
    A. Begin by making a list of subject-headings under which you might expect the
       subject to be listed.
    B. Start a card file using the following forms.
       1)  Book and magazine article:
           a) Subject
           b) Author
           c) Title
           d) Facts of publication
           e) Library call number
       2)  News story:
           a) Subject
           b) Facts of publication
           c) Headline
       3)  Periodicals:
           a) Author
           b) Title
           c) Name of periodical
           d) Volume and page number
           e) Month and year
      Sort these cards into (1) books and (2) each volume of periodicals. Then look up
      call numbers for the periodicals and sort out those for each branch library. This
      sorting saves library time.
3. Consult the card catalog in the library to locate books—record author, title, publisher, date of publication and call number.
4. Consult guides to periodicals, such as:
  • Education Index
  • Readers Guide
  • International Index to Periodicals
  • Psychological Abstracts
These are aids to finding articles on any subject. They list subject heading, with various titles of articles under them, together with the location of each article.

Gathering the Notes

A. Examine the books and articles—several volumes at a time will save steps.

Skim through your sources, locating the useful material, then make good notes of it, including quotes and information for footnotes. You do not want to have to go back to these sources again. Make these notes on separate cards for each author, identifying them by author.
B. Take care in note-taking; be accurate and honest. Be sure that you do not distort the author's meanings. Remember that you do not want to collect only those things that will support your thesis, ignoring other facts or opinions. The reader wants to know other sides of the question.
C. Get the right kind of material:
    1. Get facts, not just opinions. Compare the facts with author's conclusion.
    2. In research studies, notice the methods and procedures, and do not be afraid to
       criticize them. If the information is not quantitative, in a study, point out the need
       for objective, quantified, well-controlled research.

Outlining the Paper

A. Do not hurry into writing. Think over again what your subject and purpose are, and what kind of material you have found.
B. Review notes to find main sub-divisions of your subject. Sort the cards into natural groups then try to name each group. Use these names for main divisions in your outline. For example, you may be writing a paper about the Voice of America and you have the following subject headings on your cards.
    1. Propaganda - American (History)
    2. Voice of America - funds appropriated
    3. Voice of America - expenditures
    4. Voice of America - cost compared with Soviet propaganda
    The above cards could be sorted into six piles easily, furnishing the following headings:
    1. History (Card 1)
    2. Organization (Cards 6, 7)
    3. Cost (Cards 2, 3, 4, 9)
    4. Future (Card 10)
    You will have more cards than in the example above, and at this point you can
    possibly narrow down your subject further by taking out one of the piles of cards.
C. Sort the cards again under each main division to find sub-sections for your outline.
D. By this time it should begin to look more coherent and to take on a definite structure. If it does not, try going back and sorting again for main divisions, to see if another general pattern is possible.
E. It will probably help to organize the parts of your outline in traditional form, with a heading-subheading-section-subsection structure. But use these designations only in the outline and not in the paper itself, or it will look more like an extended outline than a paper.

Writing the First Draft

You are now ready to write.

A. Write the paper around the outline, being sure that you indicate in the first part of the paper what its purpose is. Follow the old formula:
    1. Tell the reader what you are going to say (statement of purpose)
    2. Say it (main body of the paper)
    3. Tell the reader what you've said (statement of summary and conclusion)
B. A word about composition:
    1. Traditionally, any headings or sub-headings included are nouns, not verbs or phrases.
    2. Keep things together that belong together. Your outline will help you do this if it is well organized. Be sure you don't change the subject in the middle of a paragraph, and be sure that everything under one heading in your outline is about the same general topic.
    3. Avoid short, bumpy sentences and long straggling sentences with more than one main idea.

Editing the Paper

You are now ready to polish up the first draft.

A. Try to read it as if it were cold and unfamiliar to you. It is a good idea to do this a day or two after having written the first draft.
B. Reading the paper aloud is a good way to be sure that the language is not awkward, and that it "flows" properly.
C. Check for proper spelling, phrasing, and sentence construction. Be sure that pronouns clearly refer to nouns.
D. Check for proper form on footnotes, quotes, and punctuation.
E. Check to see that quotations serve one of the following purposes:
    1. Show evidence of what an author has said.
    2. Avoid misrepresentation through restatement.
    3. Save unnecessary writing when ideas have been well expressed by the original author.
F. Check for proper form on tables and graphs. Be certain that any table or graph is self-explanatory.

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