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Environmental Science: A Global Concern, 7/e
William P. Cunningham, University of Minnesota
Mary Ann Cunningham, Vassar College
Barbara Woodworth Saigo, St. Cloud State University

How to Write a Term Paper

1. Coming up with a topic: "YIKES! I have no idea what to write about!!"

  • Daydream. Relax and let your mind wander around the general topic area of your course (Choose an environment that is quiet and peaceful.) Resist the urge to control your thoughts; let them go down any path they choose--that great idea may be just around the corner!
  • Brainstorm. Get together with a friend or two and talk about the assignment. Speak freely without criticism. Follow and build on ideas (no matter how crazy or stupid they may sound) using each other's thoughts. Many winners have come out of what initially seemed like a silly idea.
  • Ask Questions. At the next social gathering, meeting, presentation, etc. you find yourself at, ask an open-ended question about your subject and then listen for a possible paper topic in the conversations that follow.
  • Think "Out of the Box." Take your general subject and turn it on its head. Take it out of context or into a different environment. What pictures or consequences (i.e. ideas!) come to mind?
  • Open Your Eyes and Ears. Use current events to help spark an idea. Listen to a news radio station with point/counterpoint conversations; read several newspapers you normally don't subscribe to; browse through the periodical section of your school's library. What world events are happening that may present an interesting angle for a paper?
  • Try "Clustering." Write your general topic down in the center of a piece of paper. Then start writing (in a word or two) anything that comes to mind even remotely associated to your topic. Scribble words all over the paper. When you've finished, take time to read what you've written and think about the connections.

IMPORTANT: When refining your idea, be specific. You can't write about "The Trees of North America" in just a four or five page paper, but you could address "Commercial Products Derived from the Mighty Oak--Is It Worth the Sacrifice?"

2. Getting Started:"I have an idea, but now what?"

  • Use "Clustering" Again. This time write down your paper title (it's okay to be a bit general at this point-you can refine after your outline is done) in the middle of the page. Again, scribble down anything associated with the topic that comes to mind. When you're finished, go back over the paper and circle in blue ink all related topics, such as everything related to the products made from wood. In red ink, circle other related phrases--this might include how long it takes to grow an oak tree, the rate that oak trees are currently being harvested, or how many trees it takes to make a product. Then use black ink to circle yet another group of words that appear connected--maybe solutions, action steps, congressional addresses, etc.. Continue grouping your words and phrases until all the logical ones are circled. Name the connection for each group and you will have the rough body of an outline for your paper!
  • Try "Free Writing." Another idea for getting started on your paper is to just start writing--anything. Just start putting words down on paper. Don't try to control the sentences; don't worry about grammar; don't even be concerned about it making sense. Just write. Eventually, your ideas will start to flow together and a first draft (albeit rough) will develop.
  • Talk It Out. Once you have an idea for a paper, sometimes just talking, either to a friend or even out loud, about your subject content will jump-start the creative juices. Talk about what you already know about the topic, what you'd like to know, what is common knowledge, anticipated questions, etc. Eventually, your format, or outline, will begin to take shape, or if it doesn't, perhaps you need a different angle to your topic.
  • Who Is Your Audience? If you pretend that your paper is a speech--who might your audience be? Injecting some of your own convictions (written into a thesis statement, or introduction, and then supported by facts, evidence, and/or examples) can really add interest to an otherwise bland paper. For example, if your "speech" on "Commercial Products Derived from the Mighty Oak--Is It Worth the Sacrifice?" is directed to the National Association of Environmental Science Educators, it would certainly be a different presentation than one for furniture retailers, wouldn't it?
  • It's as Easy as 1, 2, 3. There is a saying that summarizes what you are trying to accomplish in setting up a logical format for your paper: "1. Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em. 2. Tell 'em. 3. Tell 'em what you told 'em." Translated, this means: 1. Introduction, including an interesting opening and your thesis statement (the specific point of your paper). 2. Body, including several sub-points that support or explain your thesis statement (be sure to include facts, examples, and/or quotes). 3. Conclusion, including a restatement of your thesis and usually a reference to, or a creative little touch that ties in with your opening sentence(s). Most instructors will also require a bibliography that lists the sources for your research and the data used in the body of your paper.
3. The final version:"Okay, I have a rough draft, but how do I finish it?"
  • Let Your Computer Help. Before you go any further, it's time to clean your paper up. If you've typed it in a word-processing program, let the computer help. Run the document through Spell-Checker, and any other grammar-based software programs available to you.
  • Walk Away. If you haven't put off the assignment until the final hour (shame on you), put the project away for an evening and take your mind completely off of the topic. In the morning, reread it with a fresh perspective--you'll be surprised at what pops off the paper at you!
  • Ask a Friend. Recruit a volunteer to read your paper and give you honest feedback. Welcome their comments and criticism, recognizing that the subject content is so close to you now that there may be things that you are overlooking, or areas that really could use improvement.
  • Use Your Professor. Most instructors would be happy to read a rough draft and offer suggestions for your final paper, and what better input could you ask for in terms of meeting the assignment?!

Here are some additional resources to help you with your term paper assignment:

  1. Writing Research Papers
  2. Writing for Botany
  3. Writing Lab Reports and Scientific Papers