Like the old saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Whether in school or other avenues of life, many common errors can be avoided by simple planning and preparation.Though some mistakes can only be fixed with knowledge (such as improved writing skills) many term paper mistakes made by students, are easily prevented with a little time and attention. And this is where planning comes in.
So what does it take to plan a term paper?
Well depending on what you're accustomed to, not much at all. But if you are looking for a quick fix than you may be a little disappointment! The steps are easy to follow, but they do require a little bit of all of you
How do you plan for a research or term paper?
Well to begin, you may think that you will spend most of your time researching for this type of paper. But actually the objective behind good planning is to narrow down your prospects so well that you spend little time fumbling through unnecessary documents, and more time reading through relevant ones, extracting beneficial notes, organizing ideas and crafting a great paper. Below is a snapshot of planning the research portion of your paper.
Planning for the research portion
- know your objective and purpose
- conduct preliminary research to help you form a research question
- compose a research question and a thesis statement (the answer to the question)
- develop a research strategy (list the best sources to utilize and keywords to help you along; ex. identify a specific database to look for articles and list relevant keywords from your topic to improve search results)
Next step, plan for the writing portion.
Making sense of your research notes
If you're a good note taker its likely that you may have side notes all over your journal articles, or even some neatly arranged notecards ready to go. But if not you may have only jotted down a few good points here and there to elaborate on. Either way, the most important step is to properly organize that information to make it work for you. What good is heap of knowledge if no one can benefit from it?
Step 1: Look for a rhyme and a reason
This basically means to identify a common denominator, pattern, or similar theme to all of the information you've gathered. It can be anything from an underlying theory, concept, idea, or simply major points that are often repeated (and even a common organizational structure).
For instance, if you find that most of the authors that you are studying under organize their works by analyzing common theories pertaining to the topic, you may decide to organize your research paper by theory as well. Or if you see that a few subtopics appear again and again you may decide to organize your paper according to those subtopics.
Note: After you've read enough material covering the same subject, any connecting ideas will usually be made apparent to you.
Step 2: Choose an organizational structure
This second step is pretty much an extension of the first one. Once you've found your rhyme and reason you can choose which type of organizational structure will work best for your paper. For example; you may decide to organize from general theories to more specific ones due to the nature of your topic.
A term paper is not the same as an essay
or a lab report
; and therefore there is no real one-size-fits-all organizational structure for all of them. But in most cases the pattern that you do discover will be something that is the norm for that particular field or discipline. Meaning that, many other writers who've composed research papers on the same subject will likely have organized their writing just as you have (because it probably makes the most sense for the topic).
Examples of organizational structures that may be relevant for research-style papers
- order of importance
- cause and effect
- general to specific
Organizing by topic
A categorical or topical setup is also another way to look at paper organization. Though it would not be considered an organizational structure per se, it may help when thinking of organizing by theory for instance. That is, even though each theory represents a particular category or way of thinking, the categories still need to be ordered in a way similar to the ones mentioned above (such as by order of importance or chronological order).
Step 3: Draw up an outline
There really is no better way to plan your writing other than with an outline. One of the main purposes of an outline is to help you organize your thoughts into a logical sequence that will be useful to the reader. Outlines are also great for ensuring that all the necessary chapters or sections needed to properly explore a topic are present, as well as providing a roadmap to the appropriate expansion of each subtopic. A simple example can be seen below.
Thesis: The No Child Left Behind act should utilize alternative means of student assessment in addition to a yearly standardized test.
What is the No Child Left Behind act?
- The purpose behind it and its legislative history
The provisions of the act
- Schools that receive federal funding
- Yearly standardized test
Note: This sample shows only one chapter; the Introduction. Subsequent chapters such as the literature review should continue to follow a sequence of Roman numerals. And though you do not have to create a formal outline such as this, doing so may be good if your teacher request an outline for instance, or just to provide the best format possible.
*Useful outline tip*
One other, not so frequently mentioned, use of outlines is actually for checking for coherency throughout a paper. Once a paper is complete a reverse outline can be drawn up to mirror the contents of the paper; as they appear, directly from the paper itself. This reverse outline can then be compared to the intended outline or table of contents. In this way the student can see where he or she went wrong in structure and whether or not the contents of the paper actually provide what was intended.
Your First Draft
After drawing up a respectable outline you are now ready to begin constructing your first draft. And if you did a really good job with the outline, your writing portion will be nothing more than 'filling in the blanks ' (also a detailed sentence outline is even better for making this portion a breeze).
Lastly, a few things to keep in mind when writing the first draft; (a) stick to only one idea per paragraph, (b) try to provide seamless transitions for all of them (paragraphs that is), and (c) avoid heavy citing until you've gotten well-through the paper (this will hopefully allow you to better distinguish your ideas from your sources' ideas).