Category Archives: Term papers

Term Paper Tricks: Picking a Topic

Suffragette parade during Wilson administration.
Suffragette parade during Wilson administration.

It’s not uncommon for college students to have a problem picking a term paper topic. The class may not interest them, or they may not have any idea what they could write about, or perhaps they just have an aversion to writing term papers. Aside from discussing the matter with your instructor (always a good idea), I would like to present a few thoughts and suggestions which might be helpful.

Try to pick a subject you’re interested in and/or want to find more about. This may not always be possible, but even if you end up selecting a topic at random, try to find an angle that you can relate to.

Pick something for which there is more than enough research material available to you. For instance, if your professor mandates that you use one book, one peer-reviewed journal article, and one article found on the Internet, make sure that you can do this; also make sure that what you use covers is both relevant and covers the subject matter in some detail. For example, if you’re writing a paper on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, using a scholarly article on his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, as a key source is a bit off the point.

If you cannot find enough material related to your topic, then perhaps you need to either select something else to write about or broaden the scope of your paper. So, if you find a surprising dearth of material on animated propaganda films made in Hollywood during World War II, there’s nothing wrong with expanding your parameters to include live-action movies made during the same period. There’s no glory in attempting to write a paper about a topic, no matter how passionate you are about it, if you can’t find the necessary material you need to write it. (If you still want to pursue the topic, despite a lack of sources, you could talk to your professor about doing an original research paper—but that’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.)

Avoid topics more suitable for a book rather than a 1,500 or 2,000 word term paper. While writing something about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States may seem rather simple, trying to cram all the highlights of its history into a few pages may turn out to be an exercise in frustration. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising that such a paper would end years before the ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920, simply because the writer reached his/her assigned word count. One obvious solution is to select a more manageable aspect of the story; for example, one might focus on the role of an important figure in the movement, such as Susan B. Anthony, or the role played by an organization, like the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

What is the Difference Between a Literature Review and a Term Paper?

Austrian painter Carl Schleicher's A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.
Austrian painter Carl Schleicher’s A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.

Merriam-Webster  defines a term paper as “a long essay that usually requires research and that is written by a student as part of a course or class.” In a term paper, the writer makes an argument about what the research says on a particular topic.

For example, I wrote an undergraduate term paper on marriage practices of the nobility in 17th Century France. I read a number of secondary sources and looked at some of the estate records that were compiled in volumes in the library. I came to the conclusion, surprising to me, that most members of the French nobility in the 17th Century did not marry, but were forced into the convent (women), the army or the priesthood (men). I wondered about how this contributed to the long-term consequences for French society, the consolidation of power that led to the explosion of the French Revolution.

The purpose of a literature review, however, is to lay out the scholarly conversations that are relevant to your topic. What kind of research are people doing, and what are they writing about? Where does your topic fit in?

Books on how to do research— one of my favorites being The Power of Questions: A Guide to Teacher and Student Research by Beverly Falk and Megan Blumenreich (2005)—commonly suggest that the novice writing a lit review for a research proposal identify research articles related to their topic, and pull out three or four themes that seem to emerge in reading them.

This is good advice, but it misses the point: Research is a conversation.  People who do research talk with each other, build on each other’s work, refute each other’s work, etc. The literature review is your “map” of that conversation. What you do in your literature review is show where your proposed study fits in.

I have found that graduate students don’t understand they are making a transition from being an undergraduate who consumes knowledge to a master who produces knowledge. Many students feel stymied, and bemoan, “I can’t find anything on this topic!”

“That’s great,” I say. “That means you are doing research on something we don’t already know. What are the conversations your study is related to?”

Structure: Once upon a time….

The end of Jean Cocteau's introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.
The end of Jean Cocteau’s introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

Writers of nonfiction, including the academic variety, can often learn useful lessons from the more “artful” storytelling world of novelists, playwrights and filmmakers. The phrase “Once upon a time…,” despite or perhaps because of age (it’s apparently been in use since 1380), still evokes a sense of wonder. It’s a sense that has been exploited in numerous ways over the years, including George Lucas’ “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” in Star Wars to the title of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.
The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.

Sometimes opening words can take on a life all their own. Think of the first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Rosebud,” the first word spoken in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. While Tolstoy’s sentence sets the tone for his novel, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane sets up a mystery (a question if you will) which the film’s story attempts to unravel.

Students are taught to write introductory paragraphs that clearly state what you are going to write about and how you are going to go about it. Unless you have been assigned to do one of those five-paragraph essays, your opening statement does not have to be your opening paragraph—it might even be several paragraphs long.

For instance, you could start off by telling an anecdote whose relevance to your topic is not initially evident. It could set up a mystery or question much like Welles did with “Rosebud.” One might also begin with an evocative quotation, such as “Once upon a time….” to start a book review of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, or Tolstoy’s “Happy families” to introduce your essay on the dynamics of families coping with schizophrenia.

While the use of anecdotes and/or quotations to start off your book or essay might seem a bit of a cliché, they can be useful literary devices to get you going. After all, it’s much more interesting than starting a term paper for your American Literature class with something as cut and dry as, “John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California.”