On your first day of class, you probably received a syllabus which outlined the major components of the course: required textbooks, supplemental materials, test dates, due dates for major assignments, and other information with specific details about how the final grade is determined. If one of the major assignments for the course is a term paper due near the end of the semester, you may be tempted to push the assignment aside with the thought, “I’ll worry about that later.” However, the sooner you begin work on your term paper, the more likely it is that you will receive a good grade, so you should start thinking about your topic as soon as possible.
A “term” paper, after all, is so named because, ideally, you should be working on the paper throughout the entire term. If that were not the case, your professor might refer to the assignment as “half-of-a-term paper” or “a-week-near-the-end-of-the-term paper” or, for the real procrastinators, “a-night-before-the-due-date-for-the-term paper.” Yes, the first week or two of classes are hectic, especially for new students, but at least thinking about a topic for the term paper is a great way to begin. Here are three questions to consider.
Did your professor assign a topic? Some professors, for example, assign general topics such as a “living author” or “a subject related to The Revolutionary War” or “a subject covered in the textbook.” If you have an assigned topic, you should begin by looking at the possibilities within that topic, so you can get a basic idea of what’s available. If you’ve read every work written by Stephen King, for instance, you might want to write a paper about him. Or, if you live in Saratoga County, you might want to explore the significance of The Battle of Saratoga during the Revolution. Finally, if someone in your family suffers from depression, you might want to write about that subject for your social science course. Note, too, that most teachers are open to other ideas you might have, even if that idea doesn’t appear at first glance to fit the assignment.
Did your professor give you the freedom to choose a topic? If you have complete freedom to choose, you have three basic options: (1) you can write about something you already know well, such as a hobby, a passion, or a lifelong interest; (2) you can write about something new which interests you and about which you want to know more; or (3) you can write about a subject that doesn’t interest you at all, but you think that subject will interest your professor. Generally, the third choice is not a good one, but many students make the mistake of trying to impress the professor. That doesn’t work well because if you’re not interested in the subject, you will probably get bogged down in your research, and your final product will reflect your lack of enthusiasm. Thus, a subject that bores you will probably bore your professor, even if it’s in his or her area of expertise. Most instructors who give you the freedom to choose would rather see you write about your area of expertise or see you educate yourself about a new technology, advancement, or trend. If you’re really interested in the subject, your excitement will show through in your work, and your instructors may be enlightened, as well. Note, too, that if you choose a new topic, you really need to start early and stay disciplined, so you can learn enough to present a good paper.
Does your professor want an informative paper or a persuasive paper? An informative paper simply provides the basic information about the subject. For instance, if you were to write an informative paper about an upcoming election, you might provide details about the candidates such as their political parties, biographical and educational background, work experiences, and positions on various issues. Once you’ve presented that information, you would leave it up to the reader to decide which candidate is superior.
By contrast, a persuasive paper might include all of the information listed above, but the paper would also recommend a particular candidate. Obviously, the persuasive paper is more difficult to write because once you recommend one candidate, you have to back up your choice with facts, reasons, statistics, and any other information you feel is convincing. Obviously, you won’t do well if your teacher is expecting a persuasive paper and you provide only the informative paper or if the reverse is true.
So, as you consider a topic for your term-paper assignment, you can approach the task as a dreaded chore, put it off until the last possible moment, and, then, plow through it just before final exams. Or, you can view the task as a challenge and an adventure, one that will be interesting and engaging for both you and your professor. Why not start thinking about your topic today!