Write what the teacher asked for. Maybe you misunderstood, or weren’t paying attention. Maybe you hated the topic, so you decided to do your own thing. Whatever the reason, not following directions is a surefire way to annoy your teacher. If you aren’t sure about an assignment, ask for clarification. From the topic, to the length of research the paper, to the number and type of references, getting things right goes a long way to helping your grade.
- Writing weapon: Hate your topic? Try negotiating. Asking to write about the latest chart-topper Yankee when your English teacher said Shakespeare won’t fly, but most teachers will give you some wiggle room if you ask nicely – and early. “Don’t criticize the assignment,” advices Sarah Dodson-Knight, an instructor at Colorado State University. “Instead, tell the teacher there’s a related angle you’d rather write about.” Show your enthusiasm and knowledge, and you might get the go-ahead.
Give yourself enough time. Nothing motivates you like knowing the term paper you haven’t started is due tomorrow morning. But procrastination will get you in trouble when you find out there isn’t enough time to research your topic, let alone organize your thoughts and get the actual paper written.
- Writing weapon: If your teacher doesn’t do it for you, give yourself (and stick to!) deadlines for each step of the process: choosing a topic, doing the research (hint: this takes the longest), organizing, writing, and proofreading.
Don’t rely on the internet. The web might be a students’ favorite resource, but most teachers and librarians disagree. First, the tens of thousands (or even millions!) of websites on any subject can overwhelm. Secondly, as Dodson says, “Because anyone can publish a web page, there is no guarantee that the information you’re reading is factual.”
- Writing weapon: When it comes to researching term papers, variety rules. Look at books, newspapers, magazines, and even tv shows and radio transcripts. Most libraries have databases – including ones in Spanish– that you can search like you do Google. Even a little kid’s book can give you a quick overview on a topic. For that special touch, interview an expert on your topic (like I did for this article!).
Reference your sources. Working on your term paper and realizing that you have no idea what book some fact in your notes came from is annoying. Forgetting that the idea isn’t even yours and then getting accused of plagiarism is much, much worse. Yet both things happen all the time.
- Writing weapon: “Document your sources right up front,” recommends Patty Frobisher, Reference Librarian and Teen Advocate Librarian at the Lafayette Public Library in Colorado. “If you don’t use something, that’s ok. It’ll still save you a lot of trouble from having to come back looking for the reference.”
Worry about the content, not the looks. Teachers are not fooled by a research paper with huge fonts and extra wide margins—in fact, they hate it. So, will I get in trouble if I buy a research paper for college? Even prettying your report up with fancy paper, a slick cover, or tons of illustrations can make it seem like your trying to hide skimpy research. Dodson speaks for most teachers when she says, “I want the text to shine, not the font.”
- Writing weapon: Read over your research paper. Or better yet, have a stronger writer read your work. Spellcheck is nice, but it’s hardly perfect. There’s no substitute for proofreading and editing your term paper. Make sure you have an introduction and a conclusion, and that everything in between supports your paper’s topic.
Bonus Writing Weapon: When you have to write a term paper, consult the writing experts. Check out Writers Inc by Patrick Sebranek, or browse Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab at And don’t forget your library. “Librarians love to help. That’s why we’re in the profession we’re in,” explains Anne Feiler, Head of Reference at the Lafayette Public Library. Let the librarian know what your research paper is about and what you’ve done so far. He or she can suggest next steps to take.