If you’ve ever used a manual camera with a zoom lens, you know that the first image you see will probably be vague or fuzzy because your subject is too close or too far away. Thus, you have to adjust the lens until your subject becomes clear. A similar adjustment may be necessary as you prepare to write your term paper. If the topic is too narrow or too broad for the expected length of the assignment, you may have to expand the scope of your paper or zoom in a little tighter, so the subject will be clear to your readers.
At the college level, most instructors assign a term paper that is between five and ten pages. If you’ve never written a term paper before, that length may sound intimidating or overwhelming. However, once you begin gathering information on a broad, general topic, you’ll be surprised at how quickly those pages fill up.
For instance, if you decide to write about author Stephen King, you could easily write five to ten pages about his life, his many novels, and his awards. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be an interesting paper because it would read too much like a shopping list of his accomplishments. Instead, you may want to narrow your focus and write on only one or two of his novels and compare and contrast them in some way or connect them to another aspect of life or society.
By contrast, if you want to write about a new female novelist who has only written one book, you may have to take the opposite approach because you can’t find five to ten pages of information about her. When that occurs, you can still write about that author, but you may have to include her with other authors in a broader category such as “new female voices” or “the next generation of American novelists.” Narrowing or broadening a topic requires some work, of course, so here are five pre-writing activities that you may find helpful.
Freewriting or Brainstorming. When you free write, you force yourself to write for a certain amount of time, and you let your ideas go straight from your brain to the page, or the computer screen, without allowing the “editor” in you to interrupt the flow of the ideas. “Focused freewriting” is similar to brainstorming because you start with a certain subject — such as the tentative topic for your term paper — and you write down anything that comes to mind on that topic. Yes, you may find that most of what you write with these activities may be useless, but if you discover one idea that is really useful, you may have refined your topic.
Journaling. Journaling is similar to freewriting or brainstorming, but instead of writing for only a short period of time, you write regularly over an extended period. This method works well for a term paper because you have so much more time with which to work. Journaling allows you to dig much deeper, and you’ll probably find that your ideas will pervade your thoughts as you perform other activities. Within a week or two, the perfect idea may just pop into your head while you’re washing the dishes or vacuuming the rugs. Yet, that “pop” may not have occurred if you hadn’t laid the groundwork for it with your journaling.
Asking and Answering the Reporter’s Questions. Typically, newspaper reporters use six key questions when they write their stories: “Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?” As you attempt to answer these questions on your subject, you may discover one aspect of your topic that you didn’t consider previously. For example, you might begin writing about “why” people suffer from depression, but, then, as you explore the other five questions, you may find that “when” they suffer or “how” they suffer is a much more interesting and manageable topic for your term paper.
Browsing. Most people associate browsing with a department store or a shopping mall, but have you ever considered browsing in a library or on the Internet? If you want to write about the Revolutionary War, for instance, you might go to the library shelf where all the books about that war are located. Then, instead, of starting to read one book cover to cover, you can simply glance at the table of contents and the chapter headings to find one particular aspect of that war that intrigues you: a specific battle, an individual participant, or an unusual cause or consequence. Naturally, you can do the same thing electronically by using a computer search engine or by taking advantage of one of the many databases that your college library provides for you.
Diagramming, Mapping, or Clustering. If words begin to overwhelm you in your research, you may want to add drawings to your words. Diagramming, mapping, and clustering are visual ways to help you see connections and relationships among your ideas and your details. You might, for instance, surround certain words with rectangles, circles, or triangles to show similarities, or you might use lines and arrows to show connections. This visual technique is especially effective if you want to focus on causes and/or effects, or if you want to see an actual timeline of when certain events occurred.
Typically, when photographers shoot a subject, they don’t just take one shot and walk away. Rather, they may take numerous shots with various settings, exposures, and angles in order to find the one perfect combination that leads to the desired photograph. When you write a term paper, your pre-writing activities will also allow you to find a focus for your term paper and allow you to communicate that idea to your readers.