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How to Write Great Term Papers for College

Updated on November 3, 2016
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy is an adjunct university professor and the 2015 recipient of Park University's Provost Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Avoid these common mistakes when you write your research papers!

Writing a term paper doesn't have to be a nightmare task
Writing a term paper doesn't have to be a nightmare task
You can write the paper of your dreams if you learn a few basics!
You can write the paper of your dreams if you learn a few basics!

Tips to Get Good Grades on Term Papers

As a university instructor and a longtime editor and writer, I cringe when seeing common writing mistakes that are all too easy to avoid. Here are some easy tips to help you write like a polished professional. If you're writing a research paper, you can get a higher grade if you follow these tips:

The First Step is Research!!!

Tip #1: Do real research and base your content on the facts you uncover rather than what seems to be the popular viewpoint or your own opinion. While it's true that many writing venues and genres have their origin in personal opinion and experience, many professional venues want objective writing. For your resume, check out the job description and gear it to reflect the person they want to hire. In college, unless you're in a creative writing class, standard research papers in higher learning are not for blog-style writing.

Tip #2: Avoid first-person language (again, there may be exceptions in creative writing classes). This is true in your resume, as well as when you're writing for college credit. If you're writing about the Roman Empire, the instructor will want to know facts about that era, not your opinion or what you think.

Tip #3: For research papers, if you're presenting an argument, state it in your first paragraph, then back it up with credible research. This means you'll need to decide ahead of time the slant you want to take on your paper (which you can do after your research and before you write, if needed), and then cite valid sources to show why your premise has merit.

Tip #4: Avoid citing sources like Wikipedia! I know, Wikipedia is interesting and has a ton of information, but many colleges and universities do not permit its use as a source for research writing. You can, however, use it to explore other sources for your research and bibliography. I like Wikipedia, too, but if your instructor tells you not to use it, you'll only raise red flags if you don't follow the guidelines. If you're doing freelance work, the guidelines are similar to those for college classes. Cite the direct source for your facts, not a compilation published by another person.

Tip #5: Make sure you get citation information as you gather your research information. You'll save considerable time if you get the author's name, publication information, page number (if needed) and other bibliography data as you go along. Otherwise, you'll be scrambling to fill in those blanks at the last minute.

Tip #6: Beware of citing information from Websites unless the original source is very clearly stated. There are indeed many sites with credible facts and solid information. But there are far more sites that are not valid sources for research. Check the online bibliography information to see if the site's content is based on true data or academic research.

How to Do Research for a College Essay | Term Paper

Term papers should cite articles in academic journals.  Your college library has thousands of journals in its archives.
Term papers should cite articles in academic journals. Your college library has thousands of journals in its archives.

Great How-to Manual for Research Papers

How to Write a Research Paper | Essay

You've done your research; now you're ready to write! Get through the usual procrastination stage (we all have it - I've been known to clean my refrigerator or do ironing while I'm stalling on a project). Use your 'denial' time to think about what you want to argue in your paper and come up with creative first-line language.

Here are a few tips on good writing style:

First Sentence: Whenever possible, avoid starting the lead sentence in a paper or section (especially the first one in a paper) with the word "The." This sounds like a dumb rule, but I guarantee you'll write more creatively if you come up with lead sentences that don't start with "The."

No Passive Voice: People often have trouble understanding what 'passive voice' means. Briefly, an 'active voice' will say the subject did the action. In 'passive voice,' the object receives the action. "The boy hit the ball" is active voice. "The ball was hit by the boy" is passive voice. The same rule goes for inanimate objects. "The book was on the table" is active voice, whereas "The Table held a book" is passive voice. After a while, you'll begin recognizing the difference, and your instructors will notice it, too!

Sentence Construction: Make certain your sentences make sense. After you've written a few pages, set the paper aside for a bit and then reread it. Watch for clumsy sentences such as, "Pioneers traveled across the continent in wagon trains for many years." Are you saying the same people spent years in the same wagon train? Or are you saying wagon trains were the mode of transportation for many years? A more graceful construction would be, "For many years, pioneers traveled across the continent in wagon trains."

Avoid Plagiarism: The fastest way to get an "F" or to be expelled or suspended is to fail to cite references properly in your papers. If you paraphrase a source, you can write it without quotes but word it differently, and attribute it to the source in the same text. If you use a statement word for word, you will need quotes. For example, you can either say, 'According to Smith, broken pipes are the leading cause of flooded homes' or you can say, 'Joe Smith, plumbing expert, said, "Broken pipes cause more leaks than anything else"' to cite that source. However, if you say, "Broken pipes cause more leaks than anything else" without citing Joe Smith, you have just plagiarized.

Note: Don't think you can get by with using material that hasn't been properly cited. Instructors have learned to spot such things, and there are software programs we use to search for plagiarism. Don't plagiarize in online posts, either, if your class includes discussion boards.

Other Issues: Unfortunately, there are 'paper mills' where students download and pay for academic material (including finished products) online. A good instructor will spot papers that have been purchased. Yes, really. We learn to recognize students' writing styles, and it's fairly obvious when you see one style of writing all semester and then a completely different style shows up on a paper. Furthermore, some papers have been sold to more than one student and professors have begun seeing them come through from multiple times.

Organizing a Paper - Video

Common Mistakes to Avoid in College Term Papers | Essays

Some errors are so common they have almost gained the status of being the 'right' way to write something. Almost, but not yet! Here are a few of my pet peeves:

Who and whom: This one is tricky. You would say, "Who has the ball?" but (for multiple reasons) you wouldn't say, "Who do I give the ball to?" The right way to say it is, "To whom do I give the ball?"

It's and its: If you're saying 'it is,' then you'll need the apostrophe. However, if you're showing possession, you do not use it. I know that's counter intuitive; you're used to using an apostrophe to show ownership, but trust me on that one. Write, "The university's enrollment is high" to show the enrollment belongs to the university. But if refering to the university as 'it,' you'll write, "Its enrollment is high."

Its or theirs? To expand a bit on the above example, you would not write, "Their enrollment is high." A large organization (a firm, store, agency, university, etc.) becomes an 'it' in writing. The word 'their' refers to people. "Its workforce is large" for a corporation and "Their family is large" for people.

Dangling words: Watch for words such as 'to' and 'at' at the end of sentences. Phrases such as "Where are you going to?" or "Where are the books at?" are wrong, wrong, wrong! The two examples just mentioned should be rewritten this way: "Where are you going?" (you don't need the 'to,' the fact that they're going somewhere tells us there's a destination) and "Where are the books?"

Your and You're: If it's a possession, you say, "Your book," but if it's the contraction of 'you are,' you say "You're." I've also seen people write 'yore,' but that's an entirely different type of writing problem.

Apostrophes in certain cases: If the name (or place) ends in an 's,' the apostrophe generally stands alone without another 's' at the end. Examples: "He read Jesus' teachings," or, "He borrowed James' book." I know this looks odd, but that's the way it's written.

Whose and Who's: Similar to you're and your, pay attention to what you're saying. "Who is" can be condensed to "Who's." Whose, however, refers to ownership or possession, such as "Can you tell whose car this is?"

There, They're and Their: Another easy one to overlook. If you're pointing out something, you will say, "There is the house." If you're describing other people, you will say, "They are," or "They're". If possession is involved, write "Their car," or "The car is theirs." As with 'its' there's no apostrophe in 'theirs.'

Modifiers and hyphens: We use modifiers to describe things, but we do not always hyphenate them. Your instructor will be impressed if you know the difference. If a modifier ends in 'ly' you do not need a hyphen, as in "The beautifully decorated home." The 'ly' at the end of 'beautiful' indicates the word is modifying something. If the word does not end that way, you use a hyphen, as in, "The well-written book."

Semicolons: I really like it when I see someone using a semicolon correctly; I can see they know how to write well. The previous sentence is an example of when to use a semicolon. Both phrases can stand alone as separate sentences, but to emphasize your point or to show the second phrase is an expansion on the first phrase, you can keep them in the same sentence and separate them with a semicolon (not a comma). Commas are used to separate things in a series, such as the pot, pan, stove and refrigerator.

Importance of Proofreading Essays | Term Papers

Wait a day and proof your paper before submitting it. Proofing your writing in college give you the confidence that you've done your best.
Wait a day and proof your paper before submitting it. Proofing your writing in college give you the confidence that you've done your best.

Everyone gets writers' block at times!

The trick to writing an essay is to start with the first paragraph, and keep on writing. Then go over it again!
The trick to writing an essay is to start with the first paragraph, and keep on writing. Then go over it again!

Don't be Afraid to Write!

Just like any other skill; you can learn to be a good writer, and even a great writer. You will indeed succeed! These are just a few tips on refining your writing. Obviously, there's no way to cover everything in a short article, but this list should help you know what to look for in your own work.

One important tool is the APA Manual of Style - all universities honor its guidelines. It can be hard to follow (sorry - just trying to be truthful!), but it's an essential investment for any college student.

Also - check out the great Online Writing Lab (OWL) offered by Purdue University. This link is easy to use, free, and has most of the information you need to write a coherent paper and cite your references properly.

If your goal is writing for a newspaper or magazine, you may need a more specific guide that targets that market. Consider buying one of the style books used by newspapers and magazines (the Associated Press puts out a good one). You can often find used copies at university book stores or online.

The Chicago Manual of Style is another widely used source for what works and what doesn't work; it is often used for legal writing and for major academic works, but it is huge and costs a lot more than other guides. There are a few differences in the styles, but a basic style guide used by news writers should serve you well and help you avoid making some very common mistakes.

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Sunikunnoth - hope these tips help now and then!

  • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

    Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 4 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

    Good information and useful too. Thank you.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    So true! As much as we all like social media, it seems to have taken the standards of writing down a notch or two. I look forward to your hubs here, KDuBarry - you will be an asset to the site!

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    KDuBarry03 5 years ago

    Trust me, Marcy, I know exactly how you feel! When I'm in my creative writing classes, many students (mind you, who are writing majors as well), seem to forget these rules in their stories; they even forget to give proper paragraph placement! Lol! These rules definitely need to be minded more frequently.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, KDuBarry - thanks for reading and commenting - I'm glad you like the hub! I see so many students who don't follow these basic grammar and punctuation rules!

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    KDuBarry03 5 years ago

    These are definitely rules that should be drilled into everyone's minds from an early age and through college; these rules are often misused and forgotten. Thank you, very much, for sharing this Hub! I voted up.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Oh, those bibliographies! Yes, they're a pain, especially the picky styling and indentation rules you have to follow. I'm glad you found the hub useful, RealHousewife! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  • RealHousewife profile image

    Kelly Umphenour 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

    Oh my! I always blush when reading instructional hubs like this while I think about my errors! eek! lol

    Thanks a bunch, I know I can use much of your advice! One of the things I love writing on hub for - is because I don't have to do a bibliography:) haha!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    I know - I think the learning process never ends! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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    Kim Lam 5 years ago from California

    Thank you Marcy, I have bookmarked this hub for reference. Oh goodness...the thought of 'studying' again....;-)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    LOL! I know what you mean about stumbling over your fingers because your mind races faster than you can type! I do hope you check out cclitgirl's great hubs; she is amazing and one has the best collections of how-to hubs on writing skills that I've seen here - I know you will love her work!

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    jenubouka 5 years ago

    Thanks I will do that! My difficulty is getting the thoughts to make sense on "paper" my mind is too fast for my fingers.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for the very kind words, jenubouka! I've seen your terrific hubs on cooking and recipes, and I can't wait to learn from you, so please consider everything reciprocal! If you're looking for other hubs on writing skills, be sure to check out cclitgirl. She has an amazing series of hubs about a wide variety of grammar and punctuation pointers.

    Thanks for reading and commenting - and thanks for your fantastic hubs on cooking!

  • profile image

    jenubouka 5 years ago

    I just want to say that you are my new found hero! As I write this comment I know and fear you are shaking your head at my writing. Great info here and very useful. I now feel I should study basic writing as well as take a closer look at all my hubs. Awesome.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, htodd - thank you for reading and commenting; I'm so glad you enjoyed the hub!

  • htodd profile image

    htodd 5 years ago from United States

    That's interesting point ..Thanks

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, savvydating! There are some other links on the hub with helpful information, too. So glad you found the hub useful!

  • savvydating profile image

    savvydating 5 years ago

    I've bookmarked this page so that I can refer to it often. Thanks a million for sharing this very, very helpful information!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Veronwe - I am working on a sequel; stay tuned!

  • Voronwe profile image

    Voronwe 5 years ago

    These were some really amazing tips! Thanks.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Chin chin - thank you for reading and commenting!

  • Chin chin profile image

    Chin chin 5 years ago from Philippines

    I really enjoyed reading this hub. It gave me a quick review of the basic rules in writing. Bookmarked. Thanks.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Kamalesh! I'm so glad you enjoyed the hub - and I appreciate your comments.

  • Kamalesh050 profile image

    Kamalesh050 5 years ago from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India

    It's a fabulous hub and I have enjoyed reading it. Undoubtedly this will be of great help to many of the writers. I shall read it again and also read some of your other hubs very shortly.

    With all best wishes,

    Kamalesh

  • vespawoolf profile image

    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Thank you, Marcy Goodfleisch. I look forward to learning more from your well-written and interesting hubs!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for reading and commenting, vespawoolf - best of luck with your writing!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, seek-knowledge! I'm glad you found the hub helpful!

  • vespawoolf profile image

    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Thank you so much. I'd never thought of finding sources tht way. I really apprecite the advice!

  • seek-knowledge profile image

    seek-knowledge 5 years ago from Global Village

    Well. Great helpful article. Thanks

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, vespawoolf - a good strategy is to use Wikipedia for its bibliography list and then search for the source it actually cites, which may well be online. I've used some online libraries (the university where I teach has one). Unless they're wiki-type sites, they are good sources. They will link you to journal publications and original sources. Thanks for commenting!

  • vespawoolf profile image

    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    This is a great hub and very helpful. I know one can get into trouble with Wikipedia, but do you have any online sources where you go for solid information? I often wonder if it's possible to do much research on the internet. Have you ever used an online library?

  • Michael Willis profile image

    Michael Willis 5 years ago from Arkansas

    Excellent writing and information Marcy. This Hub can be very helpful for writers.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for stopping by and reading, Buddy! I'm working on a follow-up; there wasn't enough room in one hub to mention all the ones that merit discussion. If you have others, let me know so I can add them!

  • buddy2blogger profile image

    buddy2blogger 5 years ago

    Great hub, Marcy !

    Very Informative and full of practical tips :)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Joanna - I'm so glad you liked the tips here! I look forward to reading your hubs - thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  • joannacarla-s profile image

    joannacarla-s 5 years ago from Philippines

    I really needed this! You actually covered almost everything which I am looking for in terms of writing correctly and effectively. Great resource for writers. Thumbs up! Indeed, more concise and a better pick than reading a whole grammar book! Thanks for this, Marcy!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Mark - I'm glad you liked the hub!

  • Mark Pitts profile image

    Mark Pitts 5 years ago from United States

    I will have to come back to this Hub often. I've always written by what sounds right and looks right, without really knowing why, just that it sounded or looked right. This was MUCH easier to read than a textbook. Thanks!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Good point, Laurie - the other one commonly used is APA. I had originally hoped to discuss citations a bit, but it started getting way too long. I am thinking of doing a hub on bibliographies to continue the topic. As you and Kathleen pointed out, there are still some bases to cover!

  • LoriSoard profile image

    LoriSoard 5 years ago from Henryville, Indiana

    Excellent tips. Also, pay attention to format the teacher wants. Most want MLA, but this can vary by instructor. I have had professors mark down for this small difference, so it's always best to ask.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Kate - I appreciate you kind words of support! We could probably form a committee and write an entire series on this topic!

  • kateperez profile image

    kateperez 5 years ago from pasadena, tx

    One HUGE one is there, they're, and their... I have to proofread that one out of so many papers for friends, peers, and family members. :D

    Too bad that the simple things were not totally learned in primary school!

    You did a fantastic job with this hub.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Kathleen - thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, instructors do care about 'that' and 'who;' you are so right about that one! I didn't have room to put everything, but if and when I visit that topic again, I should include your idea.

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Great information for any writer. One of my pet peeves is referring to people as "that". The man that drove the car. Things are that's. People are whos. The man who drove the car. Do professors care about this trend?

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