How Not to Write a Term Paper

I may be a little late in the game for this, but hopefully it will be helpful for some.

Lately I’ve been grading a lot of upper-class, undergraduate term papers, and for the most part, they’ve been uninspiring.  That being said, very few were bad, but the bulk had way too many mechanical and grammatical problems for me to give the A’s and high B’s I’d love to see the students get.

Here’s a few helpful hints, and they’re not all negative.

1. There is no “I” in “term paper.”

A lot of the students put lots of I’s all throughout the paper.  Don’t do that.  The instructor knows your topic– you don’t need to remind them that you’re writing about the Ebola panic.  We already know that.  And unless your topic specifically calls for your opinion, leave yourself out of it, unless an anecdote helps you argue your point, but even then do so with extreme prejudice.  In a blog, I can refer to myself as much as I want.  In academic writing, the researcher only appears as a name on the byline.

2. Perdue Owl is your best friend.

A lot of papers were ruined by their inability to cite their sources properly.  My department has a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism.  If a source is cited incorrectly, most professors won’t write the students up, but they will still lose major points for the error.  If you’re unsure of how to cite a source, start by checking this handy tool (  It got me through undergrad college and still helps me today.

3. Use your professor.  Nicely.

If you can’t find what you need on Owl, or wherever you’re looking, go to your professor or another professional.  They can point you in the right direction, and are often lonely during their office hours.  Plus, it looks better for you when they’re deciding whether to bump up that 89.6 to a 90 at the end of the semester.  Just saying.  But for God’s sake, be polite.  Don’t storm out in a huff in the middle of your meeting.  No, I didn’t do it.

4. Do not hog your paper!

Let someone else read it before you turn it in.  It can be a lifesaver, especially if you have a professor who considers typos to be a form of disrespect.  Or if, like me, your spelling skills atrophied after 8th grade.  Ask a parent, a roommate, a tutor… anyone.  As long as they don’t write your paper for you, do this.

5. Read aloud.

This is also a good way to catch typos and keep yourself on track.  It can be lengthy, but it saves you some embarrassment.  (Oxford-recommended method).

6. Use concentration aids.

For some people it’s peppermint.  For me, it’s Wagner.  I think it’s a time thing.  When I have a long Wagner CD going, I’m reluctant to stop work.  Do a little experimenting.


Good luck!


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