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Top-Down Strategies for Structuring a Term Paper

Strategies for Structuring a Term Paper

Writing a term paper can seem like a daunting task, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. It can be tempting to just start writing without a plan and revise as you go. While “winging it” might get the assignment done, this strategy often leads to a muddled, disorganized content piece. A better approach is to structure the argument before writing a word of it. Learn more about structuring your paper here: Planning before you start writing takes more time in the beginning, but saves you time and energy in the long run. You won’t waste time wondering what to write next or have to rewrite big sections of your text from scratch. Making a plan doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult if you start with a big-picture perspective and work your way down to the details, writing will become easier.

Make notes and free-write on your topic

When you start researching your topic, make a point of writing down notes on anything you find particularly interesting. Making notes serves a twofold purpose: it makes it easier to track down that information again in the future, and it helps you understand and assimilate the ideas faster. Similarly, free-writing on your research can kick-start your own ideas. What connections can you draw between your sources? What catches your interest most? What argument might you make when writing the assignment? Free writing is a great way to generate ideas for a thesis statement.

Write your thesis statement early

Since your thesis statement is the backbone, it’s useful to write it as early in the process as you can. Once you know your thesis, you can build an argument around it. This will become the body of your assignment. Knowing your thesis also allows you to do research more efficiently because you know exactly what kind of information to look for.

Don’t wait until you’re done researching to make an outline

Yes, you need an outline, but don’t panic — if you hate Roman numerals, there’s no need to use them. Any outlining system that helps you keep your thoughts organized will work. Making your outline while you’re still elbow-deep in research keeps you on track; it shows you any gaps in your reasoning that still need fleshing out and identifies which points in your argument need more support.

Start with the big picture

Don’t worry about details while writing the first draft of your outline; there will be plenty of time to fill those in later. Build a strong frame for your argument first. Are your major points well-sequenced? Does the argument as a whole flow smoothly? Is it convincing? Once the overall structure is sound, you can start filling in the details that support your main points.

Be flexible

As you gather information, you might have new insights and find that you need to alter your argument or revise your thesis statement. Don’t be afraid to make changes that improve the overall aspect, even if it requires shifting your focus. It’s a good idea to make your outline in a computer document instead of with paper and pen so you can make quick edits and move sections around easily.

Taking the time to build a solid framework for your paper pays off in the long run. It sharpens your argument, focuses your research, and banishes that “what do I write next?” feeling. Often it seems as though a well-planned paper practically writes itself. By constructing your argument at a big-picture level and working your way down to the details, you streamline your research, save time, and turn your formerly daunting assignment into a manageable project.

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