Building Block Approach to Writing Term Papers

By Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

How many times have you waited until the night before to write your term paper? You probably have already found out that it's a big mistake. You're desperate, and even though the deadline that looms ahead can motivate you to finally get started, you're in panic mode, and all you want to do is grind the thing out and never write another paper — ever.

Unfortunately, you can't avoid writing essays and term papers in college. In fact, you're going to write many papers, and it will become increasingly difficult to successfully write a paper if you've procrastinated. Face it. You're going to have to come up with an approach to writing papers that you can use in all your courses.

One strategy that works is to use a building block approach. It is possible that you've already used it many times in your academic career, but you were not aware that was what you were doing. A building block approach is a step-by-step process that allows you to plan ahead, and to write your paper one step at a time. It also allows you to stop along the way and to share your outline, drafts, and ideas with peer reviewers, fellow classmates, or even friends and family. With the building block approach, you have time, and you also have a conceptual map of what you're doing. You know where you are at each stage.

Using a building block approach is also a good way to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Waiting until the night before, and running out of time to write your paper often leads a poor use of references, and makes it tempting to copy and paste chunks of the articles, rather than integrating the information into the argument. What can result if one copies and pastes chunks is a "patchwork quilt" effect, with big swatches of "borrowed" text stitched together with a sentence or two of transition. It does not matter if you're citing sources, the end result is a paper that is often 70 or 80 percent borrowed. Your paper should never consist of more than 15 or 20 percent cited sources.

Building Block Approach: The Steps

Identify a Topic, Start Proposing a Thesis Statement: This may seem obvious, but you might be surprised how often this step is overlooked. A general area of investigation is often proposed, but not an actual topic, and certainly not a research question that can be clearly articulated and focused on. As you start to identify a topic. Be sure to list at least five or six possibilities.

Propose Alternative Thesis Statements: Make sure that your thesis statement takes you in the direction you want to go. Don't block yourself in with a boring or predictable topic. At the same time, be sure that it is narrow enough that you can define and refine it.

Brainstorm/Invention Stage: This is often called the "invention" stage of writing papers. It is best to try several approaches and tactics. For example, you may like to create lists of questions that come to mind as you think of your topics. Don't block the flow, and don't censor. Do everything you can to continue to the flow, and to get it going. Other approaches include free-writing, free-association, clustering, and mind-mapping.

Narrow Thesis: After the invention stage, be sure to look at your thesis again. Does it really reflect your interests? You might think about doing some preliminary research and finding if you'll be able to find articles that support your paper, which you can use as evidence, support, or background/contexts in your paper.

Look for Sources: After you have an idea of your research problem, begin to look for articles that provide support and background for your thesis. You may actually do this step earlier and narrow your topic based on the information you find. At any rate, be sure to look at the following areas and to find articles that you can use in the following ways:

  • * Definitions of key terms
  • * Background and contexts
  • * Important historical foundation
  • * Supporting evidence and details for your points
  • * Counter-arguments, and other sides of the same story
  • * Illustrative case studies
  • * Examples
  • * Other work in the same area

Build Outline: Once you have your sources, a thesis statement or topic, and an idea of the way you want to explore and structure your paper, it is good to start building a robust outline. Your outline will allow you to see how well you're supporting your argument, providing evidence, and giving useful examples and case studies.

Add to Sources: Once you've developed your outline, start plugging in your research. Where will you put your supporting data? Where are you missing support? Where do you need to do more research? Where do you need to change your approach? You may even need to reshape your argument, or recast your primary thesis/topic/thesis statement.

Structure that Begins with Engaging Opening: Now is a time to start thinking about the emotional appeals used in arguments. How will you engage the reader? How will you capture their interest? One of the best ways is to start with an engaging opening.

Where to put the Definitions, Background and Contexts: Many people mistakenly think that they need to start with a definition. They also think that a Webster-based definition is somehow interesting. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The best approach to is to put the definitions and background information in the second or third paragraph.

Evidence and Support: Evidence and support can best be organized in the body paragraphs.

Topic Sentences for Body Paragraphs: Be sure that the topic sentence in your body paragraphs ties well to the thesis statement.

Body Paragraphs that Work: Your body paragraphs work if they show support for your primary thesis in many different ways. They should provide statistics, case studies, examples, and background. More importantly, they should include your personal analysis. You may even wish to share your personal experience.

The "Value Added" — Your Personal Analysis and View: Don't forget that what makes your paper original is the fact that you're sharing your own ideas and thoughts. Your analysis, viewpoints, and mindsets are what will, in the end, give your paper a unique cast. Your original analysis is what makes your paper valuable. Never think that simply regurgitating the thoughts of others is more valuable than providing your own ideas, analysis, and interpretation. Certainly people may disagree with you, but isn't that the whole point of writing? Engage your reader, pique them, provoke them, make them think. You'll establish a "conversation" with them — it will be wonderful!

Conclusion: Your conclusion does not need to be a simple wrap-up or a restatement of your thesis. Instead, it should advance your argument, and look to the future. Give the reader something to think about. Then, have them coming back for more — a follow-up, another set of articles, another analysis in which you show your unique skills and prowess.

You can see that if you use a building block approach, you're not really going to be able to wait until the night before. However, as complicated and onerous as the process may seem, once you try it, you'll find that a building block approach is painless, perhaps even fun. In addition to giving you a sense of control (and freedom) in the writing process, you'll find that after you use the approach several times, it will become second nature. You'll internalize the process, and will be able to build papers in short order. Much of the work you can do in your mind, even before you sit down at the computer for the first time.