Monday, May 01, 2006

"How To Write A Term Paper", or "Why I've Been A Recluse For The Last Week-And-A-Half", or "Why I Wish I Could Be Justin McCreary Right Now"

These last couple of weeks I've been finishing my assignments for the semester, which involves two beastly term papers. The top picture is what I still need to read for one of them, the middle picture is what I've read so far, divided by source, and the bottom picture is for illustrative purposes.

I have written a lot of papers over the last few years, and I'm convinced that I'm getting better at it--gradually.

For anyone reading this who wrestles a lot with term papers, I wanted to make a post and describe my tried-and-tested-and-often-revised method for writing papers. It's a lot of organization up front, but it has made the actual writing part a lot less painful for me.

Up front, a person should gather the appropriate resources. I'm going to give some directions for what someone should do once they have their resources ready to go.

1. Read your resources. As you do this, take notes on small note cards. Make one note card per source with all the publication information you will need for your bibliography. Be liberal in the quantity of note cards you take. Try to keep no more than two major ideas per card. At the top of each card, be sure to note the Author and the sequence number of the note card. (For instance, For a book by James Barr, your first card would say at the top "Barr 1", followed by "Barr 2", etc. Down in the body of the card, note the page number from where you took the note. This will all be important later.

I used to write on legal pads, but when it's time to write the paper, you can't organize legal pad notes without rewriting them somewhere else, and you spend half of your time hunting through your legal pads.

2. After you've finished reading and making note cards, you will want to categorize them into an index. This is what is on the near side of my bed in picture #2. Make a big stack of the note cards, open up a new Word document, then go through them one at a time. Analyze each card for possible categories of your paper it could relate to. I'm writing a paper on Karl Barth, so I made an index of cards that could relate to his biography, his doctrine, his influence, people opposed to his views, etc. On your word document, in bold, write the category, then under each category list the cards that relate to the category. This is why you will want to sequentially number your note cards. You might have:

Barth Biography
Barr 1
Barr 3
Miller 4
Wisnefske 13

3. After you've categorized your note cards (many of them might fit into more than one category) you will start off by making a huge bibliography. If you made a separate note card with all the bibliographic information of your sources, you can just work through the stack and enter them one at a time.

Bibliographies are all about formatting, and it is easier later if you do the work up front to find out the correct way to list all your entries. I make one huge bibliography with a detail below on the correct formatting of a footnote on the same item. (See picture #3). Now when you're typing your paper, all you have to do for footnotes and the end bibliography is copy and paste.

4. Now you take the stack of note cards which you have sorted through, and put them into small stacks on a large flat surface (like a guest bed) based on the source. (All Barr note cards in one stack, all Wisnefske's in the next, etc.)

5. Now you're ready to type! After deciding the order of your paper, choose the first topic you are addressing, then look at your index. The index will have a list of all note cards relevant to this topic, so gather them together, go over to the computer, and start typing. This is really nice because you don't have to sort through all 150 note cards over and over and over. When you go through them well once and index them, you can trust your own index to show you which ones you need for each thing.

6. Continue going through your categories, then gathering, using, and restacking the notecards until your paper is done.

I don't honestly know why I went to the trouble of writing all that out. I guess it's like the book of Proverbs. When a generation has spent their whole life learning a lesson, they desire to pass it on to younger generations so that others don't have to learn everything the hard way. I've written a lot of papers in long, dragged-out, disorganized ways. This is at least one way to do it better. Posted by Picasa


  1. I wish I was Justin McCreary too (because he's super cool), wait, I am Justin McCreary

  2. I wish I was Justin McCreary too (because he's super cool), wait, I am Justin McCreary

  3. All I can say is that whoever made that picture of Justin McCreary with the afro and beard is way cooller than anybody who actually mades out note cards and fully reads his sources. But the artist of course is me.

  4. I don't deny any of that. And the afro picture of Justin is a classic.

  5. Rummage would be proud.

  6. I would have expected this to be my most highly ignored post of all time. But no. Everyone has to stop and kick me while I'm down. (I'm working on typing my paper as I guess I'm taking a quick break)

  7. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.
    Term Paper Writing