Don’t be afraid of term papers

Steve Chapman, Online/Multimedia Executive EditorCalvin and Hobbes

It’s the first day of class, and you are listening to your instructor’s expectations of you over the semester when you hear something which causes your heart to drop into the pit of your stomach: you have to write a multi-page research paper for the class. Immediately, you start trying to think of ways to avoid the dreaded assignment, and ideas ranging from dropping the class to faking your death and leaving the country come to mind.

However, you don’t need to be scared of writing research papers. Yes, they can be a challenge, but they are not impossible tasks. As a former Crowder adjunct instructor who taught classes ranging from Communications 80 to English 102, I can tell you that with a little determination and discipline, you can write an effective research paper in a few weeks. There are just a few basic concepts to keep in mind:

• You can do it! During my five years as an instructor at Crowder, I found attitude has a lot to do with student success. Students who believed they could do an assignment often succeeded, while those who didn’t would often struggle. The irony was that many of my students who didn’t believe they could write a multi-page paper were actually quite capable of doing so, but their attitude toward their work was often, “This looks like it might be correct, but since I was the one who came up with it, it must be wrong.”
If your attitude is similar to this, you need to make up your mind that you can and will write that paper. Attitude can make all the difference between making an ‘A’ and barely passing.

• Procrastination is your enemy: If you’ve been putting off writing your term paper, you need to get started now, while you still have at least half of the semester to write it. The longer you put it off, the harder it gets.
Rowana Paterson, a freshman psychology major, said waiting until the last minute last semester made writing an essay more stressful than it had to be.

“I probably made it harder on myself,” she said.

Putting off writing your paper not only makes your situation more stressful, it also gives you less time to deal with any unforeseen situations that may occur, like if your computer crashes or your laptop is stolen. The more time you have to deal with the situation, the better.

• Pick a topic you enjoy: The first step to writing a term paper is to pick your topic. If you are having trouble deciding what to write about, brainstorm possible ideas until you come up with one which you like. Have one or two alternate topics ready if the first one doesn’t work out, but write about something you are interested in. If you don’t want to read it, why would your instructor?

• Know what is expected of you: Before you begin your term paper, make sure you understand what is being assigned. Is your paper supposed to be persuasive or informative? How many sources will be required, and can you take all of them from the Internet or must some be printed books or newspaper articles? What kind of format will be required for citations?
Check with your instructor and the rubric to make sure you understand the requirements for the paper before you begin writing it.

• Visit the library: Once you know what you’re going to write about, and what is required for your paper, it’s time to begin research. Based on how much time you have to write the paper, the number of sources you are required to have, the availability of the sources and how busy your schedule is, you may want to allow up to two weeks for just research.
The Lee Library is a great place to start. Online, they have a number of databases, including EBSCOhost, LexisNexis, and Power Search, which contain thousands, if not millions, of articles which you can use. At its physical location, the library also has numerous resources including reference volumes, journals and other sources of information which often contain useful information.
Wikipedia can also be good place to start. Of course, Wikipedia articles are not considered reliable sources in themselves because anyone can edit them, but they often contain links to articles or other sources of information you can use in your research paper.
Additionally, Google and Yahoo! are also good search engines to use when you are doing your research.

• Outline your paper: Before you write your first draft, you are going to want to organize your information. To do this, you will need to create an outline.
An outline is essentially a map of what your term paper will look like. In this, you will decide what the main point of your paper is going to be, which details you will use to support this point, and where they will appear in the paper.
Outlines can save you a lot of headaches when you actually write the paper, because they allow you to organize your thoughts before you begin writing. Essentially, you are actually writing your paper at this point because you are putting all of your facts into place. Once your outline is complete, all that is left is to take your ideas and make them into sentences.

• Write the first draft: Okay, this is the point where you need to resist the urge to check Facebook, watch YouTube videos or play Internet games for up to 30 minutes at a time. Begin typing, and get what you want to say written down. If you think your writing looks less than intelligent, don’t worry about it; you’ll deal with that later when you proofread. For now, the important thing, in the words of Guy De Maupassant, is to “put black on white.”

• Take a break, and then revise: Now that you have your first draft written, it’s time to rest up a little. Print it out, and, if you have enough time, set it aside for a couple of days.
After you’ve given yourself some time, read the first draft again and use a pen or pencil to mark any changes you wish to make. An effective technique at this point is to read the paper aloud, while listening for weaknesses in the essay. When finished, edit your paper on the computer.
Now that you have your second draft, ask a couple of friends or classmates to read your paper and give you their thoughts. A fresh pair of eyes will see spelling errors and other mistakes you will miss. Don’t be disappointed if they don’t think it’s the greatest paper they’ve ever read; you goal right now is feedback, not applause.

• Make sure you have cited your sources correctly: You want to give credit where credit is due. Any source you have used in your paper needs to be cited, both in-text and in your bibliography, according to what your instructor specified. Failure to cite a source can expose you to charges of plagiarism, which not only could result in your paper getting a zero, but could get you kicked out of college as well.
One painless way to create your citations online is through With this website, you choose the style of citations you are creating, and input all of the relevant information onto an online form. The website then creates the citation for you.
Beware, though. Just as spell checkers don’t catch every misspelling, Citation Machine may not always create a correct citation. Double check your citations before turning your paper in.

• Turn it in early: If you are done ahead of schedule, turn your paper in a week or two before the deadline. Instructors are usually happier graders when they are not bogged down by several papers which have been turned in at the last moment. Also, they might proofread it for you or give you extra credit. Make sure you ask first.