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How Do you Write a Term Paper?

| Organizational matters

What does an academic paper consist of, how should it be structured and how do you even start?

Term papers (also known as academic or research papers) are a kind of an examination causing bad headaches for lots of students. Besides exams, presentations, tests, and oral examinations, academic papers are an important part of your studies. Nevertheless, sometimes you don’t really know how to start writing. To prevent feeling desperate and unprepared, we summed up the most important aspects and criteria concerning term papers, its writing process and working scientifically in general.

Time Management

When you start working on your academic paper, it is probably best to make a plan concerning your time management first. While some students manage to finish a term paper in one or two weeks, many need about two months for it. How long it takes for you is depending on your personal working habits but also goals and calendar. Therefore, start by asking yourself the following questions: When is the paper due? How long does the paper have to be and how complex is its topic? What are your plans until the due date (holidays, visiting friends, other examinations, etc.)? Do you prefer to do everything at once or to take short work units with longer breaks in-between? Is it important to you to write a perfect paper or do you just want to pass with as less work as possible? Keeping your answers in mind, try to establish a personal timetable and fix some temporary, for instance weekly goals. For example: Until the end of next week I'll inform myself about the topic and decide for a specific question, until the following week I'll organize all necessary sources for the paper, the week after that I'll work through that material and make notes, and so on. This way you'll realize early enough if you're needing more time than you thought or if you can take more breaks and especially be able to prevent having to work through the nights shortly before you're paper is due.

Structure of the Paper

In case you haven’t written a research paper so far, it could be helpful to first get information about the structure and the different parts this kind of paper consists of. An academic paper begins with a cover sheet. This should include the topic or question you're dealing with, the seminar in which you're writing the paper as well as the name of your teacher and some personal information about yourself (your name, address, email, study subject, semester and matriculation number). The cover sheet is followed by a table of content showing all chapters and sections of your work as well as a bibliography and - if you're including pictures or diagrams into your work - index of figures or images with each’s correct page number. You should think about the structure of your paper at the very beginning of your work. Still, be aware that within your research or even your writing process there might be a point when you recognize that you have to either include or leave out a certain point. Therefore, stay open to change your structure and make sure to update your table of content one last time after everything else is finished.

The actual paper then starts with an introduction, which is contrasting to most assumptions best written at the end of your working process. This part usually is no longer than one or two pages (depending on the length of the whole paper). It consists of a short explanation why the topic of your paper is interesting or important to be analyzed and a short outlook of how the following analysis is structured. Mostly, the final result of your paper is already mentioned here (being formulated as a need-to-be proofed thesis though). The main part of your paper then is divided in different sections analyzing different parts or aspects of your topic using scientific references as proofs for your statements. This then leads to the final part of your conclusion. The conclusion consists of a short sum up of your analysis and an inferentially answer to your main question.

Afterwards the appendix starts with the bibliography listing all sources you used writing the paper and the index of figures or images if you made use of images or diagrams. It is important to end the paper with a so-called independence declaration or declaration of oath. This formula that can usually be downloaded at the website of your university is a declaration saying that you did all the work on your own without copying somebody else's work (at least not without using the correct way of citation and paraphrasing).

Getting Prepared

Moving on to the more detailed part or approach to such a paper. Some teachers are giving their students concrete questions or present some possibilities the students can choose from. However, mostly the preparation of a concrete, scientific question is your part and can be quite important for the rest of the work. Therefore, you should prepare yourself. Find a topic that may has already been discussed or talked about during the seminar. What is especially interesting for you? Is there something you would like to know more about? Thus, you can look at the reading list of your seminar: Has there been a topic especially critical or outstanding? Which texts do like? Keeping this in mind, you can go on to inform yourself, find texts and problems you’re interested in that can enclose your topic. Particularly for regular term papers usually consisting of ten to 15 pages, your topic needs to be very precise as you have to analyze it in a detailed way. If you tried all that and still don't have a clue what to write about or you have a general idea but cannot think of a concrete question, it is usually possible to talk to your teacher and ask for advice. Often, it is enough to have an idea of the topic and then decide for the concrete question during the literature research.

Literature Research

This leads to the next important aspect: the literature research. What has already been researched on your topic? Which important texts should serve as the basis for your paper? Which aspects have been analyzed especially often or critical? Search for primary and secondary sources* consisting of anthologies, monographs, essays, articles, academic papers and if necessary online sources (only if they are valid and trustworthy!). Be aware to use enough but also not too many sources. 80 different sources are too much for a paper of 15 pages, five are not enough. For most study subjects there's the rule of thumb saying you need one to two sources for each page. However, you should ask your teacher about the exact requirements, as they can be quite different sometimes.

As already mentioned, it is very important to make sure you're sources are valid. Therefore, it is most safe to use the library of your university for your research. If you're not able to find enough sources concerning your topic there or you just want to add another source because you think it fits perfectly you can prove the quality of the source by asking the following questions: Is it written in an adequate, scientific and correct language? Does the text use correct citation rules and valid sources itself? Is the author of the text known and acknowledged for the topic the text deals with? If you're still unsure, you can ask fellow students or teachers. In addition, if you need more sources, it can help to look at the bibliography of the texts you already found. When you start working through the texts then, it is recommendable to take notes and write down some particular significant quotes already. This way you won't have to read everything again during your writing process and can already organize your ideas and thoughts.

*Primary sources are the first books that explained the topic you are talking about in a scientific context. Secondary sources are the sources in which the authors refer to the primary sources and use them to explain their extended view of the topic.

Structure of your Paper

Having decided for a specific thesis topic or question and researched some literature, you can now start to develop a structure to organize your paper. As already mentioned in the beginning, it is possible that some sections change within your writing process. However, the rough structure should be fixed now.

As mentioned as well, the paper consists of three main parts: the introduction, the main part/analysis and the conclusion. While the introduction is shortly explaining the topic and approach of the paper for the reader, the main part is made of discussions, analyses or examinations of your thesis. Ask yourself, if you need to explain some words or basis theories, so the reader will be able to understand your assumptions later on. If that's the case, you should add a short explanation in the first sections of your main part but be aware to keep this parts short as the main part of your work usually should be self-made examinations such as analyses. Depending on the topic, it can make sense sometimes to analyze different aspect at first and compare them later on, to add some fictive or real examples and sometimes to oppose contrasting opinions or positions to each other.

Attention: Different from some English-speaking countries, in Germany it is common to write about both sides of an argument. You don't have to clearly be on one side all the time! Based on this you can now divide your main part into different sections. These do not only help the reader later on to keep the overview but also yourself with organizing and structuring your ideas and thoughts during the writing process. In the main part, it is also especially important to make use of quotes and paraphrases. Therefore, the next section of this article will deal with citation rules. The conclusion then answers the question of your thesis based on the work of your main part. Even here, you can have a split opinion as long as you make sure to prove your assumptions with scientific texts so that your conclusion is not too subjective and therefore still valid.

Citation and Paraphrasing

As already mentioned, it is very important for a term paper that you prove your statements according to citation rules. All the statements or assertions that cannot be described as generally known, i.e. obvious to anyone not familiar with the subject, must be proven by valid sources. As already explained, you should have found your sources in the literature research. Again: Even with minor definitions, websites like Wikipedia are not a valid source! Instead, try to find a specialist dictionary or a textbook on the subject. It is then crucial to state the source correctly. In most cases, you can't just start writing and simply list all the sources used in the bibliography. Instead, you should indicate where you got the facts and statements from for each individual statement or each content-related section of your work. Everything else would be a plagiarism and that is, if it is recognized, not only a clear reason to fail, but also legally punishable.

Basically, you should be able to distinguish between paraphrases and quotations. Paraphrases are the reproduction of texts by others in your own words. Corresponding sections are to be provided with the source reference. One speaks of quotations if you use more than three same words as the original one. These quotes must not only include the source, but also be enclosed in quotation marks. A good piece of work usually has a mixture of direct quotations and paraphrases. Generally, the shorter the work, the more likely it is to dispense with long quotations and better summarize the most important aspects yourself.

There are different systems for the way in which sources are cited. It is therefore crucial that you ask your teachers beforehand what kind of citation is required! In Germany, quoting with footnotes is generally the most common method. For this purpose, a footnote is placed behind the content sections or (always directly behind!) the quotations. At the bottom of the page, you will find the corresponding information about the source including the page number you are referring to. The university of Hamburg summed up the most important rules on the correct structure of your references.

In English seminars, but also in some German disciplines such as linguistics, short references are more common. Here, the references are placed in brackets after the paraphrases or quotations instead of footnotes. As a rule, the author's surname and page number are given only briefly, while the complete source reference can be found in the bibliography. There are also different systems for this. Still, the best known is the MLA system and its rules can be found on its own website. In case of uncertainty, don't be afraid to ask fellow students or professors! If you take care to list all the sources you have consulted both in the body of the text and in the bibliography and, above all, use a uniform style and structure for your references, nothing should go wrong.

Writing Process and Revision

With all these rules in mind and your concept established through (rough) structuring and literature research, you can start writing. Do not use colloquial phrases, but appropriate technical terms so that your text sounds scientific. It is also important to keep the central theme throughout all chapters, i.e. to make it clear why this excursus, example or argumentation is relevant for your paper.

Once you have finished writing all the chapters, it is time to review the paper for all its important aspects: Have you quoted everything correctly or could plagiarism be accused against you? Have the formal requirements been met (margin, line spacing, font size, etc.)? Is your sentence formation understandable, are grammar and spelling correct? You should revise everything now: Form, structure, choice of words and sentence structure. Writing also means writing over and over again. Have you already created a bibliography and added the signed declaration of independence to your term paper? If you are not sure what the formal requirements are, most universities have created their own guidelines for scientific work, which you can download and use for orientation.


If all these points are fulfilled, you should have your work proofread again by some outsiders. Even if you have already checked your own text many times, you usually lack the objective eye at the end to notice careless mistakes or misleading sentence positions. After all, you know exactly what is supposed to be written or said, but others do not. It is important to schedule enough time for proofreading so that you do not come under time pressure at the end of your work due to the corrections. Give your term paper to people who know what is important in this kind of paper (fellow students) but also to acquaintances who are neither familiar with your studies nor with the topic (brother, sister, father, girlfriend). This way, you should receive appropriate feedback and be able to correct spelling and grammar, as well as the coherence and comprehensibility of the text.

Handing in your Paper and Evaluation

Your paper should be ready for printing now! After your academic paper has survived all the checking measures, you can finally hand it in. It is best to find out in advance whether the lecturer would like to receive the paper as a print version or in digital form (or both). Printed copies usually require a simple stapler or a transparent film to hand in the work. For Bachelor's or Master's thesis, most universities have exact requirements for the print version (e.g. spiral or book binding in multiple copies). In digital form, it is best to save the document in PDF format and send it to the lecturer by email. Sometimes, however, lecturers also explicitly want a Word or OpenOffice file to control the work of digital plagiarism checking systems. However, it is advisable to attach a PDF version to ensure that the read version does not contain formatting errors caused by different program versions or suchlike. In addition, the file name should be clear and understandable so that it doesn't get lost in all the professor's downloads - preferably: TermPaper_ThesisTitle_FirstAndSurname.pdf.

Depending on the lecturer and external conditions, it can take several months before you get your paper back. If you need the grade quickly for your transcript or the something like that you should announce it as early and friendly as possible to your examiner. Usually, they prioritize your evaluation then. Mostly, you will be informed by mail or via the online grading system of the university when the work was graded. Sometimes there are also classic announcements on campus or personal feedback meetings. The advantage of the latter is that you find out exactly what was good and what could be improved in your thesis. If you only receive your grade digitally and don't understand how it came to be, you can also ask your examiner for such an appointment by email.

Your Personal Checklist

When you read the article you will notice that it all sounds like a lot of complicated and exhausting work and to be honest - that's true. But if you have an interesting topic and a lecturer with whom you can get along well, the whole thing often goes much faster and more fun than you first think. Even if that's not the case, you can hardly go wrong with these tips and instructions! In addition, you will become more experienced with each new term paper and at the end of your studies nothing stands in the way of the Bachelor thesis. If you don't write a term paper at all during your studies and only write the (Bachelor) thesis at the end, you will have to consider a few more aspects than those listed here, but the procedure is basically the same and differs, for example, only in the scope, the time required and the precision of the topic. So, don't worry and get to work, then you will soon be able to enjoy your freedom again J

As a little help for planning your work process, you can also download your personal checklist here, in which all important work steps are summarized again:

Download Checklist