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Writing Center

Writing Resources

Writing a Term Paper or Senior Thesis

Here are some tips for those long, intimidating term papers or senior theses:

  • Start early. If you don't, none of these tips will matter. Big trouble is looming if you don't have a specific topic by the end of the first week. You should be delving into the sources during the second week.
  • Keep in mind all of the dos and don'ts in this booklet.
  • Work closely with your professor to assure that your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • Set up a schedule with your professor and check his or her policy about reading rough drafts or parts of rough drafts. Then keep your professor informed about what you're doing. You don't want any unpleasant surprises. You certainly don't want to hear, "I haven't seen you for weeks, and it sounds like you're way off base. How can you possibly get this done with only two weeks left in the semester?"
  • Make an appointment with Kristin Strohmeyer, the history reference librarian in Burke Library. She will help you to find and use the appropriate catalogs and indexes. 
  • Use your imagination in compiling a bibliography. Think of all of the possible key words and subjects that may lead you to material. If you find something really good, check the subjects under which it incataloged. Comb the notes and bibliographies of books and articles you've already found.
  • Much of what you need will not be in our library, so get to know the friendly folks in the Interlibrary Loan department.
  • Start early. This can't be said too often.
  • Use as many primary sources as you can.
  • Jot down your ideas as they come to you. You may not remember them later.
  • Take careful notes on your reading. Label your notes completely and precisely. Distinguish meticulously and systematically between what you are directly quoting and what you are summarizing in your own words. Unintended plagiarism is still plagiarism. Stay clean as a hound's tooth. Write down not just the page of the quotation or idea, but also the whole run of pages where the matter is discussed. Reread all of your notes periodically to make sure that you still understand them and are compiling what you will need to write your paper. Err on the side of writing down more than you think you will need. Copious, precise notes won't come back to haunt you; skimpy, vague notes will. Just accept that there is something anal about good note-taking.
  • If you take notes directly into your computer, they will be easy to index and pull up, but there are a couple of downsides. You will not be able to see all of them simultaneously, as you can note cards laid out on a big table. What you gain in ease of access may come at the price of losing the big picture. Also, if your notes are in your computer, you may be tempted to save time and thought by pasting many of them directly into your paper. Note cards encourage you to rethink and to rework your ideas into a unified whole.
  • Don't start to write until you have a good outline.
  • Make sure that your paper has a thesis. (See also: State a clear thesis.)
  • Check and recheck your facts.
  • Footnote properly. (See also: Cite sources carefully.)
  • Save plenty of time to proofread.
  • Start early.