1) Focus on a topic early.
Until you’ve done the research, you won’t know for sure Whether or not you’ll need to narrow your focus or broaden it. By allowing yourself at least three weeks for casual research before you get into the thick of your paper, you’ll be in no danger of painting yourself into a corner. In addition, if you need to request material through interlibrary loan, you’ll have time to wait for it to arrive.
2) Know your resources. When writing a paper, you only want to consult reliable sources – academic texts or publications in peer-reviewed journals. While online databases like ProQuest can be helpful in locating articles, it’s also important to utilize resources on the shelves. If you can locate your subject area (or areas) in your library, you can browse freely and find out what you’re looking for much more easily than if you were looking at online abstracts. Furthermore, gaining a basic understanding of your library’s classification system (whether it’s Dewey or Library of Congress) can be invaluable in locating what you’re looking for. Bibliographies in helpful books or journal articles may lead you to further information.
3) Outline your paper beforehand. At least a week before your paper is due, draft an outline. If you want to craft a strong paper, it’s essential to create a cohesive outline of your paper’s structure that lists your key points and their support. (You’ll want to include specific citations and quotes you plan on using in your paper.) In addition, outlining lays out explicit proof of how your research backs up your thesis: once you’re done, all you have to do is connect the dots, and you’ve got a paper!
4) Talk to your professor. Now that you’ve gotten the bones of your paper assembled, it’s time to go talk to your professor (or a TA, if you feel more comfortable or the professor is too busy). Whomever you talk to, you’re sure to find they’ll have new ideas or sources to contribute to your paper. In addition, your professor is sure to appreciate the time you took to visit and the fact that you’ve already got an excellent start on your paper. Don’t wait until the day before your paper’s due – plan ahead and make a time to speak with your professor early on, as many professors are swamped by students who’ve gotten a late start.
5) Document your paper properly. While proper formatting and documentation may seem like mere icing on the cake now that you have a thorough and well-supported paper written, they are just as important as accurate and pertinent content. In addition, using proper documentation is important to show which ideas are yours, and original, and to credit those which are not. (Claiming the ideas of others as your own, regardless of whether the actual text is different, is still plagiarism.) Make sure you know how your professor wishes your paper to be documented (MLA? Chicago style? APA?), and familiarize yourself with all three sets of guidelines. If you’re writing a research paper for the humanities, you’ll probably want to stick with Chicago style, as it allows the most comprehensive and clear citations. You may wish to buy a style manual (The St. Martin’s Handbook, Fifth Edition, is an excellent one.)
Follow these simple steps, and you’ll ace your term papers with the greatest of ease!