You’ve been toiling away the entire term, and now it all comes down to this—the term paper. In many classes, term papers take the place of a final exam and can determine a whole letter grade (and sometimes more).
No pressure, right?
While writing a term paper can be stressful, time-consuming, and really just a drag all around, there’s no reason it has to drive you crazy. I’m here to show you how to write a term paper from start to finish.
It may not be the easiest essay you’ll ever write, but students who put in the right amount of time and effort often feel a real sense of accomplishment (and they’re more likely to get a good grade).
So let’s get into how to write a term paper, shall we?
What Is a Term Paper?
Before we talk about how to write a term paper, we should probably clarify what it is first.
A term paper is a rather long essay about a topic covered during the semester or other type of term. Its topic comes from material covered in class. However, it’s important to note that you’ll need to get additional sources, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Typically, you’ll have to argue a point in a term paper. But there are other skills you’ll have to show to bring it all together. They include these skills:
- Researching and synthesizing source materials
- Organizing your outline and writing to make your points as clear as possible
- Analyzing the material and offering your own commentary
Now… on to the first important decision—choosing your topic.
Choosing a Topic for Your Term Paper
Some classes give you a topic to write on. If that’s the case for your class, you can just completely skip this section.
As for the rest of you—you either have a list of topics to choose from or you have the freedom to pick something from your own brain (this is actually the hardest part for people like me—there’s just so much to write about).
Keep in mind that you don’t have to know everything about the topic right now because you’ll be doing a lot of research before you type a single word of your paper.
That said, you should know something about the topic, at least enough to know whether you’re interested enough to write about it. The more interested you are in your term paper topic, the easier and more enjoyable it will be to write.
What to do when you’re given a list of topics
Depending on the topics your instructor provides, this can turn out to be the optimal situation. You aren’t too limited in the scope of your term paper, but there aren’t an infinite number of choices either.
But how do you narrow it down to just one? The first thing to do is read through the options and see which one most catches your interest.
Still can’t decide? Choose something you already have a fair amount of background knowledge about. This will make your research process much faster because you’ll already know which sources to start with.
It’s important to note that, while having some background knowledge about your term paper topic can be an asset, you don’t want to have a preconceived notion of what your thesis statement or supporting details are going to be.
Term papers are supposed to be based off research, not the unsupported opinions of the writers. So whatever you choose, keep an open mind.
What to do when you have to make your own topic
Even if you have to choose your own topic, there are typically some guidelines, the most important being that the topic should be inspired by the content you’ve learned during the term.
You can get inspiration from looking at your notes, re-reading the syllabus, or going back to a favorite reading and seeing what most excited you.
Make it specific
The way most people choose a topic is by starting big. But while you may be interested in something like jazz, for instance, that’s way too broad for an appropriate topic. So you have to narrow it down until you have a question.
What burning questions do you have? Your topic should not be a concrete answer. Instead, it should be a point you can make through providing support from your sources. Sticking with the jazz example, here are some questions I might have:
- Why did jazz start in New Orleans?
- Was there any conflict between white and black jazz musicians?
- What types of impacts did jazz have on society as a whole?
Even these questions may be too broad. For historical topics like this, specifying a time frame, geographical region, or influential people can make it specific enough.
Researching and Gathering Your Sources
Although you should have a pretty specific topic for your term paper, you might not be able to get it completely narrowed down without doing some research first.
The easiest way to do this is go back to material you found interesting in class and look at what references the authors of those books or articles include. Then check out those references yourself.
By the time you have your topic perfected, you should have a couple of sources already selected. But you’ll need many more to give a well-rounded view of the point you’re trying to make in your term paper.
You’ll want to include both primary and secondary sources. What constitutes a primary source can depend on what general subject you’re writing about. Here are a few examples:
- Literature: The book or poem you’re writing about.
- Science fields: Notes and observations from an original experiment or field study.
- History: Accounts from witnesses of the actual event or time period you’re writing about, as well as autobiographies of people you’re studying.
Secondary sources are analyses of these primary sources from credible sources. You can determine the credibility of a source by who wrote it, whether it’s as unbiased as possible, and whether the author included references to other credible sources.
When you’re getting information from your sources, it’s important to take notes. When you do, pick out information that helps you address your topic—but don’t fall into the trap of notating everything a book says.
In addition, it’s much easier to write down the bibliographical information and page number you got the information from while you’re taking notes than when you’re writing your term paper.
This is especially true if you’re checking books out from the library and you have to return them before you’re finished with your paper.
How to Write a Term Paper: Getting Down to Business
Now that you have your topic and have done a fair amount of research, it’s time to start actually writing your term paper. That means we’re ready to dive into how to write a term paper.
Let’s use the jazz example from before. Let’s say my topic was “How did jazz affect race relations in the 1930s and 1940s?”
Writing your thesis statement
Your thesis statement is incredibly important. It tells the reader not only what your topic is, but also what arguments you’ll be presenting in the paper.
Your thesis statement should make a decisive stance. You don’t want to make “maybe” statements because then it doesn’t seem like you have any authority.
For the topic I’ve chosen, my thesis statement would read as follows:
Jazz in the 1930s and 1940s increased the credibility of African American music, undermined racism, and helped fight segregation in bands and in audiences.
In the above statement, I specify the topic and the time period, and I give three points that I’ll discuss in the body of my essay.
You don’t have to have three points yourself—you can have as many or as few as you need. However, it’s important that you’re able to fully discuss each point, so having too many might not give you the space and time to fully flesh out your argument.
Outlining your term paper
Once you have your thesis statement just the way you want it, it’s time to create your outline. This is crucial to staying on topic throughout your paper and not wasting time wondering if you’ve left anything out. My outline would look like this:
- Important players in 1930s and 1940s jazz
- Racism in America during that time
- Thesis Statement
- Gave African American music more credibility
- First time black Americans got to record music for a broad audience
- Played at high-class “white” venues like Carnegie Hall
- Didn’t have to hide behind vaudeville acts anymore
- Undermined racism
- Code words in songs that defied racism
- Louis Armstrong, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”
- Source: Raeburn
- Fought segregation in bands and audiences
- Benny Goodman, first mixed-race band at Carnegie
- Sources: Firestone, Collier
- Goodman’s indifference about race spread to his audience
- Source: Tackley
- Benny Goodman, first mixed-race band at Carnegie
- Restatement of thesis
- Closing points
You’ll note a few things in my outline.
First, I include background information in my introduction. This sets the stage and gives readers general information that helps them put your argument into context.
I also included sources in the body paragraphs. Doing this will help you when you later have to cite your sources.
Drafting your term paper
Now that you’ve gotten an outline written down, it’s time to start getting into the details. I like to take the same document my outline is written in and simply fill out the points with more detail—reformatting it as I go, of course.
Pro Tip: Save a copy of your original outline in a separate document in case you need it later for any reason.
When you’re writing, be sure to include references (in the appropriate formatting) for any ideas that aren’t originally yours. This not only helps your argument appear more credible, but also helps ensure you avoid unintentional plagiarism and getting failed for plagiarism.
The Finishing Touches
After you’ve written your term paper, take some time to edit it. Nothing’s perfect on the first draft. Most things aren’t even perfect on the second draft.
When you edit, you’re not just looking out for spelling and grammatical errors. You also want to eliminate redundant or unnecessary wording, make sure your ideas flow well, and make sure your thesis statement is clear.
If you need a second set of eyes in the editing process, you can look to the Kibin editors. They’ve helped countless students have more confidence when they turn in their final assignments.