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Term paper report writing

How to Write Term Papers

Writing a term paper is one of the most common requirements for an upper-division course such as the one for which this book was probably assigned. Such term papers usually count for a significant part of your final grade. Yet many, perhaps most, students have never received formal instruction about how to write a good research report. The following pages are meant to help you write an "A" paper by giving you some guidelines about how to go about your research and writing.

Why do instructors assign papers? Answering this question is a good place to start thinking about term papers because if you know why papers are such a common assignment, then perhaps you can approach the task with added enthusiasm and dedication. Two goals usually motivate this assignment. One goal relates to the specific subject of the course; the other goal is based on your professional development. The first course-specific goal is to increase your expertise in some particular substantive area. The amount that you learn from this or almost any other course will be expanded significantly by doing research and by writing a paper. The effort will allow you to delve into the intricacies of a specific topic far beyond what is possible in the no doubt broad lectures that your instructor must deliver in class. Your research will go beyond the necessarily general commentary found in this text.

The second and probably more important goal behind a paper-writing assignment extends beyond the specific content of the course. The object is to sharpen your analytic and writing skills in preparation for the professional career that you may wish to pursue after graduation. Do not underestimate the importance of such thinking and communications skills. Most professional positions that college graduates seek will eventually require that you find information, analyze it, and convey your conclusions and recommendations to others, including your boss. You will be judged by your product. A survey of ranking business executives a few years ago asked them what accounted for the rise of their most successful young subordinates compared to the failure or slow progress of other junior executives. Communications skills was one of the factors most mentioned by the top executives. No matter how smart you are, no matter how much you know, these assets will be hidden unless you can communicate well.

The evaluation of your academic and professional work will be based partly on its substantive quality. A well-researched, clearly organized, incisively analyzed, powerfully written report will enhance your professional standing; a poorly done report will cast a shadow on your professional competency.

It is also important to realize that your report will be judged in part by such standards as neatness, grammar, and spelling, and other such technical criteria. It is not uncommon for university instructors to get papers that represent a good research and analytical effort but that are sloppy, contain numerous grammatical errors, are full of misspellings, or are burdened by other such technical deficiencies. Such shortcomings make you look bad. It is very difficult for an instructor (or, later on, your boss) to be dazzled by your intellectual acumen while being simultaneously appalled by your English usage. Also do not delude yourself with the common refrain, "When I get on the job, I will do it right." It takes practice to do things well. That is true for rollerblading, shooting baskets, and playing the guitar. It is also true for doing a research paper. Now, in college, is the time to practice and learn. Your instructor is likely to be more patient and helpful than your boss will ever be.

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Getting Started

Most successful efforts require some planning. Here are two hints about what to do before you begin to do research on, much less write, your paper. Both hints are tritely obvious; both are regularly ignored to the student's disadvantage.

1. Follow instructions. Your instructor will (or at least should) let you know what is expected. Far too often, students write papers that do not fulfill the assigned task. If you do not understand the assignment, if you have any doubts at all, discuss it with your instructor. It is not uncommon in class or on the job for a person to get instructions, to not understand them, but to be reluctant to ask for clarification for fear of seeming "dumb." This is a significant error. In the first place, your boss will probably not think less of you for asking for clarification. In the second place, asking for supplementary instructions is far, far better than doing a report that does not meet the needs of your boss and is not what he or she wanted. That really makes you look dumb.

2. Do not wait until the last minute. Last-minute efforts usually read like last-minute efforts! Plan backward from the date the paper is due to allow plenty of time to get it done. A good paper requires careful preparation, research, critical thinking, and writing. These steps take time. Also, allow time for the unexpected. Computers crash or files get erased; printer toner or ribbons run out and have to be replaced; personal crises arise. You need to be able to cope with these and still get the paper done on time. "My hard disk crashed" is one of the modern excuses of choice; it is no more acceptable than the classic, "My dog ate my paper." Being late with reports in class or on the job is a very, very bad idea.

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Choosing a Topic

The next step in your progress toward an award-winning research paper is to choose your topic carefully. If you are responsible for choosing your own topic, put some thought into this decision. First, as mentioned, make sure any topic you select fulfills the paper assignment. Second, if possible pick a topic that interests you. The more interested you are in a topic, the easier it will be for you to devote time and energy to studying it and to writing about it. Third, ensure that you select a topic that fits the length of the paper that you intend to write, the research resources that are available to you, and your analytical tools.

Length: If you attempt to write a 10-page paper entitled "The President and Congress Struggle for Power: Two Centuries of Constitutional Conflict," then your paper is destined to be "a mile wide and an inch deep," as they say. It is better to do something more narrowly focused and to do it well than to give a superficial treatment of a large subject.

Research Resources: Trying to write a paper on "Secret Military Operations in the Persian Gulf War" would also be a mistake because the government has not released the relevant information. You should take the holdings of your library into account. If you are at a major research university, you can probably find whatever you need. Even at large libraries, however, you may have trouble finding good sources to support a research paper on U.S.-Sri Lankan relations or U.S. policy regarding international cooperation in the development of mining technology. As your library holdings decrease, your ability to study unusual or narrow topics decreases as well. So be careful not to choose a topic that destines you to fail.

Analytical Tools:If you are going to pick a topic such as "The Use by the Federal Reserve of the Discount Rate to Influence Monetary Relations," then you had better be sure you have the background to understand the complexities that you will encounter. Similarly, ensure that you have the proper statistical skills if you are going to analyze votes in Congress to see whether length of service, party affiliation, constituency interest, or the margin of victory is most closely associated with a senator's support of presidential proposals.

For all of these issues, rule number 1 here and throughout this writing guide is check with the instructor if there is any doubt in your mind. Indeed, it is a very good idea to write a paragraph on what you intend to analyze, show it to the professor, and get his or her reaction.

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Doing the Research

Now the project begins in earnest. Good research is the foundation of your paper. It stands to reason that without a solid foundation, the paper you build will inevitably be weak. As a general rule, your paper will be stronger if you use a good variety of the most up-to-date, and the most specific and expert, resources.

The Library: The place to do research is the library. Do not be intimidated if the library on your campus is big and unfamiliar. Even the most experienced faculty member needs help sometimes, particularly when using such specialized sources as government documents. The good news is that assistance is readily available. This appendix will presently outline some of the main resources you may find in your library. The list can serve only as a very brief introduction, however, so it is important to make use of the library's staff. When you get lost, as we all do, ask the nearest librarian for help. Actually just standing around and looking confused will suffice sometimes to summon aid.

Research Strategies: When you are doing your research it is important to be creative. Here are a few tips:

1. Start out by reading a general study or two on your subject. This will give you a broad grasp of your topic and will help you identify what is important and on what you need to focus your research. Simply jumping in and beginning to do research in specialized studies can often waste a considerable amount of your time. Textbooks can also be helpful. For many topics, one starting point might be a U.S. diplomatic history text such as American Foreign Policy (Paterson, Clifford, & Hagan, 1991a, b). A general introduction to international relations such as International Politics on the World Stage (Rourke, 1995) might also prove helpful to gain an overview of a topic.

2. Treat research like a detective story. Search under a variety of subject headings when looking for sources in the physical or computerized card catalog, in an index, or any other finding aid. If, for example, you are doing a paper on Vietnam, do not limit yourself to looking under "V" for Vietnam. Other likely subject headings might be Asia, Southeast; Ho Chi Minh; Kissinger, Henry; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Nixon, Richard M.; U.S.-Foreign Relations; or U.S.-History.

3. Look at the most recent books and journal articles first. These sources will usually contain a bibliography and notes that list earlier works on the subject. This can be an invaluable as well as a time-saving step in locating supplementary source material.

4. Photocopy important material. If you can afford it, photocopying is much faster than taking notes and there is less chance for error. If you take written notes, use index cards. Larger cards are better than smaller ones. Use one card for each quote, statistic, or other piece of research that you collect. Cards work well because they can be arranged easily. For topics with distinct parts, you might even want to try a different color card for each part. Some people use portable computers to take notes. If you do, be sure to make a backup copy on a floppy disk.

5. Make a careful and complete notation of the source of your material. Later on we will cover why and how to cite material, but there is nothing more frustrating than having to go back to the library to look up a citation that you should have noted clearly and completely in the first place.

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Research Resources

Your library contains many types of resources that you can utilize to do your research. The following list is a mere beginning. Use it, but also go to your library, wander about a bit looking at its various sections and the resources that each contains, and ask librarians about what is available. You may be surprised at how many resources you discover.

Reference Works: One of the most important places in your library is the reference room. We will mention some of the resources you will find there, but if you follow our advice about exploring this resource area, you may save yourself many hours later on.

The materials in the reference room are valuable resources for beginning to structure the basic outline of your topic. Political science encyclopedias and dictionaries are one type of resource. There are many. For an American foreign policy course you might wish to look at sources such as the Dictionary of American Diplomatic History (Findling, 1989) or, at the most general level of political science, you might wish to consult The Encyclopedic Dictionary of American Government (Dushkin, 1991). There are similar works, such as The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (Krieger, 1993), that are global in scope. Then there are resources such as Editorial Research Reports, the Political Handbook of the World, or the Index to International Public Opinion that deal with particular topics, give summaries of various governments, or take other specialized approaches. Such works are normally acceptable sources; general-purpose encyclopedias (such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the World Book, etc.) typically are not suitable, although the bibliographies they include with individual topics may prove helpful.

In a U.S. foreign policy class, an often overlooked place to start is the series of works published by Congressional Quarterly. Weekly updates come in the form of the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Reports. Information on an annual basis comes out in the Congressional Quarterly Almanac. Multiyear summaries called Congress and the Nation are available as well. These contain the basics of most U.S. foreign policy actions. Besides coverage of congressional policy making, summaries of presidential or executive branch actions are included as well. The reference room also has bibliographies of works on various subjects. These are classified under "Z." Check with the reference librarians. They may save you time.

Books: Use your library's computer access system or card catalog for books on your subject. A good place to start is with the Library of Congress Subject Headings for ways to cross-reference your search for books. In the Library of Congress system, most U.S. history is under the letter E. For economics, look at H; for world history, consult books under D. Under H, the subsets of HC, HG, and HJ are particularly good for economics. The letter J encompasses most works on political science. As subsets, the letters JK focus on U.S. politics; JL, JN, and JQ cover other parts of the world; and JX covers international politics. Military affairs are under U. It is valuable to know these letters because sometimes it is worthwhile to simply go to the stacks where those letters are shelved and browse a bit to uncover resources that you may have missed in your computer or card catalog search. The shelves in the reference room are partly arranged using the Library of Congress system. Older books are also sometimes catalogued under the Dewey decimal system with the 300s and 900s of especial relevance to political science and history.

Scholarly Journal Articles: Some topics, like U.S. diplomacy during the recent fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, may be so contemporary that there are few or no books yet available. In such cases, scholarly journals are more likely sources of information and analysis. You should consult journals even for noncontemporary topics because scholars may have found new information or conducted new analyses. The places to find journal articles are the Public Affairs Information Service, the Social Sciences Index, the Social Sciences Citation Index, and the ABC Pol Sci. You should be able to find most, if not all of these, in your library's reference room. Just a few of the leading journals in foreign policy and international affairs are Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, International Affairs, International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of International Affairs, Orbis, and World Politics. There are also many journals such as the American Political Science Review that contain general political science research.

Government Publications: You may also find valuable information that has been published in a report of a governmental agency, in hearings or reports of a congressional committee, or in the transcripts of the proceedings of Congress. The United Nations and a number of other international organizations also publish proceedings and reports. There are several indexes available. The Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications provides a comprehensive list of sources. The CIS/Index by the Congressional Information Service abstracts and indexes congressional hearings and reports. Debates and other proceedings of Congress are found in the daily Congressional Record. At some schools, accessing government documents can be a challenge. See your reference librarians for help with government publications.

Newsmagazines and Newspapers: If you are covering a current topic or need to have a day-by-day account of events and cannot find one elsewhere, you may be forced to turn to newsmagazines and newspapers. Be sure, however, to check with your instructor to ensure that these are considered acceptable sources for your assignment. Mostly they are useful for facts or for contemporary quotes and are usually not good sources of analysis. Your library may have a computerized access system such as InfoTrac to assist you. The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature also helps access this material. Additionally, major newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times are indexed. Some are now available on CD-ROM, allowing you to use the computer to search by subject and then print out the relevant stories. For instance, InfoTrac is one CD-ROM-based system that among other things indexes the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times. The Lexis/Nexis computer database will not only provide you with indexed citations of journalistic articles, but also with the text of the article in most instances. See the reference librarians for help with such resources. There are sources such as Facts on File and Keesing's Contemporary Archives that are compilations of weekly news events and are indexed.

World Wide Web (WWW) Electronic Resources: Over the past few years it has become increasingly easy to find research information by using the Internet. Until recently the Gopher system of data archives was the dominant form of Internet information access, but now most governmental and nongovernmental organizations, universities, and even many businesses have developed access to their research resources over the graphic environment on the World Wide Web. The following are a number of Web sites that will get you started in searching for information you may need in writing your research paper. Although some of the Uniform Resource Locators (URL) listed below are for specific information sources, most provide you with "hot-linked" lists that will get you to where you might want to look for information.

Government Bureaucracies


Networked Government Resources


U.S. Government Links


Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut


International Simulations, University of Michigan


Yahoo Political Science


It is important to note that URLs change frequently. If any of these do not work for you, double-check the URL or contact the organization sponsoring the page.

Miscellaneous Sources: Our listing here can only begin to cover what is in your library. There may be a map room. There may also be an audio-visual section. Some libraries contain archives or a rare book collection. Talk to a librarian or your professor for added information. Also realize that no library has everything. Consequently, you may find references to sources that are not found in your library. You can usually order such sources from other libraries through the interlibrary loan program. Check with your reference librarians to learn how to use this service. Be advised, however, that interlibrary loans take some time. So order any needed sources as early as possible.

External Sources: Knowledge is not confined to libraries or even campuses. A surprising number of students know someone who knows something about the specifics of some U.S. foreign policy issue. Even if you do not know someone personally, you might find it interesting and possible to conduct an interview with a decision maker or some other relevant person. Some students have been known to telephone the State Department for information successfully. Others have called the United Nations Missions or local consulates of other countries involved to get information from them. For advice on unconventional sources, see your instructor.

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Organizing the Paper

The keys to effective papers are good organization and presentation of ideas and error-free technical skills. There are a number of sources that you can access to help you both organize and write your paper. Some are: Writer's Guide: Political Science (Biddle & Holland, 1987); The Chicago Manual of Style (1993); "The Write Stuff" (Cronin, 1986); Writing with Power (Elbow, 1981); The Elements of Style (Strunk & White, 1979); and A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Turabian, 1987). Our comments on writing a paper that follow may prove helpful to you, but they are not substitutes for the fuller discussions you will find in these writing guides.

There are three organizational issues to consider. They are the outline, the parts of the paper, and the approach.

Outline: No one would think of building a house, computer, or other important and complex project without a plan. Students regularly write papers without a plan. As a result, poor organization is a common weakness of undergraduate term papers. The best way to construct your plan and to organize information for maximum effect is to put together an outline. An outline serves to lay out your paper's structure, to ensure that it is complete and logical, and to prevent you from getting off the track. Determine what you wish to accomplish in the paper; then prepare an outline specifying every step from Introduction to Conclusion. Linear writing is crucial in professional papers and reports. A good outline also serves to help you later: It ensures that you stay on track, write an accurate summary for your conclusions, and cover all of the relevant information and arguments.

Parts: All papers should have three basic parts: an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. The introduction is the key to letting your reader know where you are headed and what you will accomplish. Remember always that while the organization of your paper may be clear to you, it is not clear to your reader. Therefore, the introduction is something like a road map that acquaints the reader with the journey ahead. This will make it easier for the reader to understand what follows and will improve the reader's evaluation of your work. Tell the reader in concise terms (1) what the subject of the paper is, (2) what it is that you hope to find out, and (3) how you will go about it.

If you are writing an advanced, theoretical paper, your introduction might well also include a review of the existing scholarship on the subject, a section in which you identify how you collected your data and other information, and a discussion of the methodology you will use. Wolfinger (1993) is a guide for such advanced papers.

The main body is the largest part of the paper. It should have a logical organization. Especially if the paper is long, it is often a good idea to divide the main body into sections designated by headings and subheadings. Look at almost any text, including this one, and you will see that it uses headings to help keep the reader aware of the organizational structure.

Also with regard to your main body, do not assume knowledge on the part of the reader. Include all important information, explain its significance, and detail your logic. Write your paper as though its reader will be a reasonably intelligent and informed person but not an expert on your topic. Your instructor wants to know what you know and will not "read into" the paper information that is not there.

The conclusion should sum up what you have found and stress the evidence that supports your analysis. There is something very human about wanting to have things summed up, so do not leave your reader hanging without a conclusion.

Approach: There are several ways to approach your paper. A common organizational approach is a chronological one. The advantage of this approach is that it uses the passage of time as its organizing mechanism. The disadvantage of a chronological approach is that it can easily become a "laundry list" of events, both important and unimportant. Students often list everything they find, leaving it to the reader to determine which factors are most important. Chronologies are also no substitute for analysis. There is nothing wrong with a chronological approach if it is done well; just be sure to put more emphasis throughout on why things happened than on what happened.

A more analytic approach would be organized around a set of factors, or variables, that are important to the subject of the paper. Theoretical approaches can also be used to organize a paper. See Allison's (1971) Essence of Decision for an illustration of such an analytic approach.

Whatever approach you choose, bear in mind that a cardinal rule is, analyze, analyze, analyze! Summarizing your findings in the conclusion does not mean that this is the only place to put "you" in the paper. Your analysis should appear throughout the paper. A big error that many novice writers make is to use the main body of the paper to create a heap of facts and to wait until the conclusion to say what they mean. This approach is boring and will not impress your readers with your analytical ability. The best papers by far are those that draw data, events, and other material together and interpret them throughout.

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Writing the Paper

Besides organization, the other hallmark of a good paper is clarity in writing. Remember that if a paper fails to communicate well, then its research-no matter how well done--will have little impact. There is an old piece of advice that says, "write like you speak." This is terrible advice, at least for formal papers. Good written communication is somewhat different from good spoken communication. When you speak to someone, especially face to face, you can convey meaning through voice inflection, gestures, and other methods in addition to your words. These methods are not available in written communications. Therefore, choice of words, punctuation, and other considerations are particularly vital when you write. Good writing can be divided into three parts: effort, style considerations, and technical matters.

Effort: Thomas Alva Edison once supposedly commented that "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." That is true whether one is inventing the lightbulb or creating an essay, a report, or a book. Writing and polishing drafts of a paper take time and effort. They cannot be done the night before the paper is due. If you sit down at your word processor the night before your report is due and write it into the wee hours of the morning, you will almost certainly leave your reader as bleary-eyed when he or she reads the paper as you were when you wrote it. Two things to do are to write drafts and to get others to read your paper.

1. Write a draft, preferably more than one. No professional writer would dream of sending a manuscript out for review or to press without writing multiple drafts. Indeed, the more one writes, the more one feels the need to do drafts. Only undergraduates have the hubris to keyboard a paper into the computer, print a copy out, hand it in, and wait confidently for that rave review and an "A" grade from the instructor. A better idea is to write a first draft. Note here that the adjective "rough" does not precede "draft." Your draft should be complete and carefully done. Once your smooth draft is done, put it aside for a few days so that you can gain perspective. Then reread it. You may be surprised at how many ways you find to improve what you have written when you look at it with "fresh eyes." The same is true for your third and subsequent drafts.

2. Get help. There are many people who can help you write a first-rate paper. One person is your instructor. Discuss your topic and your ideas with your professor. He or she may be able to help you refine your topic, avoid pitfalls, identify resources, or plan the paper's organization. Submit drafts to your professor far enough ahead of the deadline to give the instructor time to suggest revisions. It may prove helpful also to ask a classmate, a family member, or someone else to read your paper. Most people are not good judges of their own writing. We tend to read what we meant to say, not what we actually wrote. A fresh reader will be able to point out technical errors and lapses in your argument and organization. Writing centers are another source of help at many colleges and universities. You may have already paid for such assistance with your tuition dollars; you might as well use it.

Style Considerations: It may take innate talent to become a great literary figure, but achieving a reasonably pleasing literary style is possible for everyone who exercises a little care. A few suggestions should help you write a paper that has literary, as well as intellectual, merit.

1. Watch your sentence structure. Students and scholars too often seem to assume that long, complex sentences are symbolic of profundity. They are not; they are mostly just cumbersome. Simple, subject-verb-object sentences are best. They are powerful. Still, if you do not vary them occasionally, numerous short sentences do not "read" well. So, after several simple sentences, add a longer one. But do not go too far the other way. Consider "Rourke's Rule of 2s": "Sentences more than two lines long or with more than two commas are probably too long to be understood easily, especially if there have been two in a row."

2. Rely on active tense, action verbs. Avoid the passive tense (No: "Politicians are disliked by many people." Yes: "Many people dislike politicians."). Similarly, action verbs (made, jumped, went) are better than verbs of being (is, are, were). In general, active/action verbs generate more interest.

3. Use standard English. Colloquial English typically does not make a good impression unless you are writing fiction. Obscenities and other forms of gutter English are almost never acceptable.

4. Avoid starting too many sentences with adverbial or adjectival clauses or phrases. These are the short phrases (such as "In the morning, we went...") that are often followed by a comma. Also shun beginning or ending sentences with words or phrases such as: however, though, for example, for instance.

5. Watch your paragraph length. Paragraphs over one page in length are usually too long. They may contain redundant statements or more than one major idea. Rework such paragraphs to delete unnecessary text or to separate ideas into additional paragraphs. At the other extreme, one-sentence paragraphs are not acceptable. Remember that each paragraph should have a topic sentence and several others that explain or develop that topic.

6. Rely on transitions between paragraphs. Conventions like "On the other hand," "Still," "Also," "Nevertheless," "Thus," "However," or "As a result" help the reader get from one thought to another. They smooth the reading process.

7. Avoid clichés. "They fought like cats and dogs over which policy to adopt." Ugh!

8. Get to the point. Do not beat around the bush; save a tree; avoid word pollution.

Technical Matters: Your paper must be free of common writing mistakes. Cautions about some of these are:

1. Avoid sentence fragments. Every sentence must have a subject and a verb.

2. Check your spelling. Misspelled words make you appear uneducated, careless, or both. Keep in mind that misspelled words and typographical errors cannot be distinguished from each other by a reader. Both are unacceptable. Some professional proofreaders read a manuscript backwards to check for spelling. Try it. Do not rely on just your own sense of how words are spelled. Use a dictionary, a "spell check" program if you have a computer, and a second reader to proofread your drafts. Beware of spell checkers, though! Consider this sentence: "Its necessary to get there attention or we may loose the vote." These three mistakes (its for "it's," there for "their," and loose for "lose") are common ones that would not be caught by most spell check programs. Thus it is crucial to have a human scan your words.

3. Make sure subjects and verbs agree. Subject-verb disagreement is most likely to occur when the two are separated in the sentences by several other words.

4. Be careful of verb tense. Many poor writers use only present tense. Use past tense, future, and other tenses as appropriate. Also be careful to keep verb tense consistent within paragraphs.

5. Make pronouns mean what they say. Misuse of pronouns is very common. A pronoun refers to the last noun of the same person and gender. Consider the sentences, "John F. Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was subsequently also shot and killed. Many Americans wept at his death." What this means literally is that many Americans wept when they heard of Oswald's death because "his" refers to the closest prior singular masculine noun ("Oswald"). Also, do not normally use pronouns more than twice in a row to refer to the same noun. Use the noun or a variation thereof again for clarity. While we are on the subject of pronouns, it is seldom correct to use a gender-specific pronoun (he, she, him, her) to refer to an inanimate object. The United States, for example, is an "it," not a "she."

6. Do not split infinitives. Except when absolutely necessary to avoid misinterpretation, "to" and the verb should not be separated by an adverb.

7. Avoid the use of contractions. Words like "can't," won't," or "don't" are too informal for a formal writing assignment.

8. Be careful of abbreviations. Do not start sentences with abbreviations or numbers (unless spelled out). For countries, avoid using the abbreviation as a noun (No: The U.S. did...); but the abbreviation is acceptable as an adjective (Yes: Current U.S. foreign policy...). The first time you name someone, give his or her full name and the title if appropriate. Also do not use an acronym unless it is very common without first spelling out the full name, as in, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

9. Do not end sentences with prepositions. This rule is being relaxed, but repetitive use of prepositions at the end of sentences is indicative of poor sentence structure.

10. Know when and how to use specific punctuation. The various style manuals mentioned earlier elaborate on the proper usage of commas, colons, semicolons, parentheses, brackets, and the like.

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Citations and References

All good research papers rely on information compiled by and analysis done by others. If you write a research paper without consulting other works, then you have written an essay, not a report. If you do rely in part on the work of other people and you do not cite them, you have failed in your responsibilities. A research paper must cite the work of others.

There are two reasons that citations are mandatory. The first is to allow the reader to explore the subject further by consulting the works that you have utilized. Without regular and complete citations, such further exploration by your reader is difficult or impossible. Second, intellectual honesty requires citations. Failure to use them is plagiarism, which is unacceptable in any form. Plagiarism is the theft of the thoughts, facts, or knowledge of others by not giving them proper credit.

When to Cite: Follow these guidelines to protect yourself:

1. Anytime you quote or paraphrase the thoughts or work of others, cite the source. It is incorrect to believe that only quotations require citations. You should also insert a note whenever you are relying on someone else's thoughts or research, even if you are only paraphrasing (putting it in your own words).

2. Simple, commonly known facts need not be footnoted. A rule of thumb is that if you did not know the information before you started the paper, then you should use a citation to show where you found the information. Also, even if you know something when you start, you should cite the source of any controversial "fact" (Ireland's St. Brenden and the Vikings came to the New World before Columbus).

3. When in doubt, cite the source. Plagiarism is unethical. Instructors and other readers take it very seriously. Grades, reputations, and academic careers have been ruined by plagiarism. Err on the side of safety. One citation too many is far better than one citation too few.

How to Cite: The use of a correct format for citations used in endnotes or footnotes and in a bibliography often seem a bit complex and cumbersome, but doing so has two good points. Those advantages are completeness and consistency. Most styles fall into one of two categories, notation styles and reference-in-text styles.

Notation style involves the use of numbers to indicate each citation. Each number's corresponding note may be at the bottom of the page as a footnote or at the end of the paper as an endnote. In either case, you should provide comprehensive information on each source the first time it appears as a footnote or an endnote, with shortened versions appearing in later footnotes or endnotes. At the end of the paper, a bibliography repeats the full documentation of these sources, listing them alphabetically by author. Bibliographies have their own formatting styles. A number of works demonstrate both citation and bibliography format styles, including A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Turabian, 1980) and The Chicago Manual of Style (1993).

A reference-in-text style uses the author's name and the year of publication of the work, which are placed in parentheses and inserted at the appropriate place in the text. A page number is also included for direct quotes and in some other cases. Then at the end of the paper or book there is a "References" or "Works Cited" section that contains the full documentation for all the sources cited throughout the body of the work. These sources are listed alphabetically by author. Reference-in-text styles are increasingly the norm in social science, and most are some variant of the style developed by the American Psychological Association (APA). For details of how to use such styles, see the APA's Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (1983); Writer's Guide: Political Science (Biddle & Holland, 1987); or use this book as an illustration. Whatever citation style you choose, use it correctly and be consistent.

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Presenting the Paper

Your job is not quite finished. After writing the paper, you must prepare its physical presentation. Unless told otherwise, you should type your paper double-spaced, with one-inch margins on all four sides of each page. Your paper should feature a title page, the body of the paper, and then the bibliography, "Works Cited," or "References" page(s). If your instructor prefers some variation of this model, that will usually be specified in advance. Once again, it is important to stress that a paper is a whole product. A paper that contains impeccable research, cogent analysis, and brilliant writing will still evoke a negative reaction from the reader if it is wrinkled, printed sloppily, or barely readable because the ink on the ribbon is exhausted. Some general guidelines include:

1. Printed material is preferable. Most instructors will not accept handwritten reports. Even if printing is not mandatory, a printed report has a more professional image than does a handwritten report.

2. Make sure the print is easily legible. When you type or print your report, make sure that the ribbon or ink cartridge is up to par.

3. Do not play the margin, spacing, and font game. Professors are not naive and have read veritable mountains of papers. Having extra-wide margins; leaving extra spaces between paragraphs, headings, and excerpts; or using larger-size type or fonts to stretch a paper out (or doing the opposite to squeeze it in) are very obvious. You will not fool the instructor or anyone else. So, why bother?

4. Number your pages. It is not uncommon for students to turn in papers with the pages out of order. Numbering the pages cuts down on this mistake. Also, unbound papers sometimes fall apart and must be reassembled. Numbered pages will facilitate this.

5. Securely fasten the paper together. Paper clips are a bad idea. Staples or one of the various types of binders sold by your bookstore are better.

6. Read your paper one last time. Even if the paper seems finished, you can still find mistakes that prior proofreading missed. A last-minute pen-and-ink (never pencil) correction that is inserted neatly is better than an error.

7. Go home and relax. Get a pizza, watch some television, catch a movie! You deserve it after working hard and writing a great paper. Congratulations!

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*From John T. Rourke, Ralph G. Carter, Mark A. Boyer, Making American Foreign Policy (McGraw-Hill, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Have you been busting your little collegiate butt just to get mediocre results? Well, tell Granny to get the magnets ready: follow these steps, and take your term papers to the head of the class.


Sample Papers

Writing Your Own Term Paper

  1. 1

    Choose your topic. Try to make it as creative as possible; if you're given the opportunity to choose your own, take advantage of this. Choose something you're particularly interested in because this will make it easier to write; in particular, try to select the topic as a result of pressing questions you already know you want to search for answers to.
Narrow down your topic to something that can really be worked within the boundaries of the paper. If the topic is already chosen for you, start exploring unique angles that can set your content and information apart from the more obvious approaches many others will probably take. Finally, whatever angle your topic takes, it should be both original in approach and insightful, something the reader will be drawn into and fascinated by.
  • Take great care not to choose a topic and be so set on how you see the outcome of your paper that you're closed to new ideas and avenues of thinking as you work through the paper. This is known in academia as "premature cognitive commitment". It can mar an otherwise good paper because an outcome that is pre-determined in your head, regardless of the research findings along the way, will be molded to fit the outcome, rather than the outcome reflecting a genuine analysis of the discoveries made.


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