Writing a Term Paper
1. Pay Attention to the Specific Assignment
All term paper assignments are not the same. The nature of the assignment will differ across departments within your university and across courses and instructors within departments. Therefore, it is essential to pay close attention to the specific assignment. Do not assume that a paper format that has worked well for you in the past will necessarily work this time around.
2. Get an Early Start
The sooner you start on the paper assignments, the more likely you are to find research material. Library resources will invariably be strained towards the end of the term. If you give yourself enough lead time, useful material is likely to emerge from newspaper and magazine articles, from other sources, from conversations with friends, and from random thoughts and observations that you might have.
There are a number of leads that can be pursued in trying to locate research material for your paper. Use the suggested reading in this and other recent texts, and work backward from the footnotes. Use the card catalogue in your library. Use the Canadian Periodicals Index, and go through the recent and as yet unindexed issues of journals such as the Canadian Journal of Political Science, Canadian Public Policy, and the Journal of Canadian Studies. Keep a close eye on the newspapers, and on magazines such as Maclean's, Saturday Night, and Canadian Forum. When you find one useful source, plunder its footnotes and bibliography from other leads.
4. Do Not Reinvent the Wheel
Your paper should draw upon the existing social science literature, as a term paper in an introductory course can carry only a limited amount of original research. What counts is your ability to apply existing knowledge and theories to the particular subject under examination in your paper.
5. Create a Memory Bank
Set up a file folder or large envelope for each assignment you face during the term. Then, whenever you have a thought or insight into the assignment, whenever you encounter a possible source of research material, jot it down on a piece of paper and file it away in the folder or envelope. Whenever you encounter something that might be useful, be it in a text, journal article or newspaper, take notes (including the source of the information) and file them away. All the relevant material for each assignment will then be gathered together in one place, ready to be dumped out on your desk when the writing begins. Less material will be lost from a paper memory than from a mental one.
6. Respect Deadlines and Page Limits
Take deadlines seriously and frame your assignment within the page limits set by your instructor. After all, in the "real world" projects have to be done on time and within specified limits. If you are asked for a fifteen-page synopsis by Friday, your employer will not expect a thirty-page synopsis by the following Thursday.
7. Write at Least Two Drafts
Do not expect to produce a good paper on the first draft. Allow enough time that you can write a rough draft and let it sit for a few days. Then go through the draft as dispassionately as possible, pretending, if you like, that someone else wrote it. Rewrite the sections that are rough, add in new material, and correct problems of style, substance, and interpretation. Remember that rewriting in the early stages often entails substantial reorganization of the material, not merely correcting spelling and grammatical errors. Writing is a cognitive process, a way of thinking about your material and discovering what you want to say. Thus do not be surprised if your paper changes considerably from one draft to the next.
8. A Research Paper is Not an Essay
A research paper must do more than present your own viewpoint. It should explore a particular theme or question through a marshalling of the available evidence. While it is acceptable to be argumentative, you should not stray beyond the bounds of the existing evidence. The argument should be derived from the evidence, or at least supported by it, rather than an expression of one's own beliefs.
9. The Thematic Structure
A good paper pursues an explicit theme or thesis. This should be laid out as early as possible, perhaps in the introductory paragraph. The main body of the paper should then develop this thesis or theme, and the concluding paragraph should link back to the introductory paragraph. There is, then, a circular structure to the paper: you state what it is you intend to do, you go out and do it, and then you conclude by summarizing what you did answering the questions posed in your introductory paragraph.
10. Pay Attention to Style and Organization
In the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message." How you communicate your ideas will have a critical impact on their reception. Do not expect your instructor to sift through awkward sentences, indifferent organization, and a sloppy style searching for intellectual gold. Good ideas poorly presented are indistinguishable from poor ideas poorly presented.
See the Department of Political Science's Guide to Writing a Term Paper (includes examples)
11. Do Not Rush to the Attack
It is relatively easy and at times satisfying to attack, condemn and deplore. However, while a moralistic stance may enrich a paper, your primary task is to understand the phenomenon, event, or personality under investigation. Why did something happen? What were the alternatives? Why were some options pursued and others avoided? Once you understand the complexities of the issue, then and only then are you in a position to render some judgment.
12. Avoid Loaded Words
Be careful in your use of words like genocide, lie, murder, deceive, catastrophic, and disaster. Strong words in a research paper are analogous to swear words in more common discourse; if overused, they lose their impact. If you call something a disaster, be sure that you really mean a disaster and not merely an unfortunate or unpleasant event. Readers are more impressed by firm but reasonable statements supported by evidence than by fervently held beliefs expressed in highly charged language.
13. Do Not Plagiarize
To plagiarize means to pass off the words or ideas of others as your own. In many schools, plagiarism can lead to automatic failure and even expulsion. If you use the words of other writers, enclose them within quotation marks and provide their source in a footnote. If you paraphrase other writers, you must still indicate the source of the material. There is no problem in using the work of other people, and indeed this is what much of the research enterprise is all about - building upon an existing body of knowledge and insights. However, where the work of others is used, it must be acknowledged.
A good paragraph has its own internal structure and coherency. It explores a single theme or issue, and the break between paragraphs is used to signify a shift in analysis or emphasis. (A good check on the coherence of a paragraph is to read the first and last sentences; they should make sense together and should contain the essence of the paragraph.) Be wary of very long paragraphs - I once received a paper with a paragraph that stretched over five and a half pages! Paragraphs over a page in length suggest an indifference on the part of the writer to organization.
Subheadings can be used to impose an organizational structure upon your paper. They break up the paper into more easily digested chunks and convey the impression that you have paid attention to the structural form and coherency of your argument. It is essential, however, to provide some transition between the sections of your paper. Subheadings emphasize points of transition; they do not provide a substitute for transitions in the body of the text.
16. Do Not Assume Shared Knowledge
Students are often unsure whether to include information that they feel will be "obvious" to the marker. Often when I have criticized students for failing to include certain information, they have replied "I just assumed you knew that." The problem is that it is difficult for a marker to assume that the writer indeed knows information that is not contained in the paper. You may well assume that I know that John A. Macdonald was the leader of the Conservative Party, but I have fewer grounds for assuming that you know. Therefore, it pays to err on the side of including what you may assume to be shared common knowledge. Write less for your instructor than for some other, impartial audience that is not privy to what has gone on in your course.
17. Avoid Long Quotes
Excessively long quotes suggest an overreliance on the work of others, and a reluctance on the writer's part to come to grips with the ideas behind the quote. Your job, after all, goes well beyond presenting the works of others. When quotes of more than one sentence in length are used, they should be set off from the main body of the paragraph and they should be introduced. Phrases like "As Smith has observed..." and "Jones elaborates upon this point at some length" can be useful in introducing long quotes.
18. Avoid Terminological Confusion
A good argument can be obscured by terminological confusion. Be careful, for example, not to confuse Parliament with the Government of Canada, or French Canadians with the Québécois, or Nova Scotia with the Government of Nova Scotia. Be sure to define the key terms and concepts in your paper. In doing so, do not rely on an English language dictionary. A dictionary of political science or an encyclopedia of social sciences provides a much better source.
Footnotes provide the linkage between your text and the research material that you have employed. Whatever footnote style you adopt - and some institutions specify a particular format - apply it consistently. Footnotes are not peripheral to a good research paper; they are an intrinsic part of it and should not be passed over lightly. It should be possible for a reader to reconstruct the paper from the footnotes, and thus verify your findings.
A bibliography should be included to acknowledge the sources that you consulted, and in particular those sources that have been of general use but to which specific reference has not been made either in the text or in the footnotes. Do not pad your bibliography by throwing in material that you have not looked at.
21. End with an Emphatic Conclusion
Avoid a paper that fizzles out at the end, which creates the impression that you ran out of things to say and just stopped. The conclusion should not simply review the main points in the paper. It should tie the paper together, looping back to the introduction in order to demonstrate that you have done what you set out to do. Admittedly, a conclusion is often not easy to write, but it is the conclusion that pulls the research enterprise together and answers the question, "so what?"
22. Hand-Written Papers
Most universities and colleges have regulations which state that students are not to be penalized for hand-written papers. The fact remains, however, that poor handwriting will lessen the impact of your paper. If the reader has to struggle through, word by word and sentence by sentence, there is a good chance that at the end of the paper he or she will have little appreciation of the paper's broader theme and argument. Poor handwriting will hurt you, no matter how hard the marker tries to keep to the spirit of institutional regulations.
Always proofread your paper and, better still, have a friend do it also. Pay particular attention to grammar and spelling, and to the agreement between subjects and verbs. A paper that has not been proofread suggests sloppiness and indifference on the part of the author. Careful proofreading ensures that your paper is as good as it can be, and that the marker will not be distracted from your argument and ideas by a progression of typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors.
24. Good Luck
*Gibbins, Roger (1990) Conflict & Unity: An Introduction to Canadian Political Life, 2nd ed. See Appendix F, p. 384-389.