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February 20, 2016

Getting Started On Your Term Paper

Writing a paper is not about your feelings about the text. Neither are you to demonstrate your reading skills by concocting a summary from the books and articles written by others. A paper is supposed to teach you the tools of the trade of academic work - this can be a daunting task. Where do you start? 

In this article:
Why you have to write a paper in the first place
Getting Started

Why you have to write a paper in the first place

 Writing a paper is not about your feelings about the text. Neither are you to demonstrate your reading skills by concocting a summary from the books and articles written by others.

A paper is supposed to teach you the tools of the trade of academic work: thorough research, evaluating sources, building a line of argument, learning to prepare a manuscript in standardized formats. What is most important is that writing a paper will help you learn to think independently, not to take everything for granted just because you can see it in print; furthermore, you learn to convince others by structuring your ideas and rendering them presentable in written form. No matter if you are training to be a teacher or if you plan on working in publishing, advertising, or if your heart is in something completely different – these are skills you will need in almost any job you take on after university.

Starting to write your paper is not always going to be fun – you are going to curse the too complicated, too pompous language of an expert, you are going to head to the library and come back without the book you so desperately need, you are going to lose your patience with a footnote you just cannot seem to get right. In the end, however, you will have accomplished a task, solved a problem, seen a text from a new perspective – in short, you will have done the work of a scholar.


All papers are due on September 15th (summer semester) or March 15th (winter semester). This deadline is binding, i.e. there can only be extensions in case of illness (you need to submit a medical report complete with diagnosis to the examination office) or in case of an obligatory internship that will prevent you from submitting your paper on time.

You should start on your paper as early as your schedule permits. Do your research (and submit any necessary requests for remote loans) during the semester so you can start writing after the end-of-term exams. Backup your data regularly.

If you are not sure how to do that, consult and Reserve at least a week for formatting, proof-reading, and printing.

The topic must be approved by your course convenor. If you submit a paper on a topic you have not talked to the course convenor about, or if you change the phrasing of the title without checking back with him or her, this is sufficient grounds for rejection. The topic can, but need not be identical to the topic of your presentation.

Getting Started

 When you have found a topic and your course convenor has approved of it, start analysing your topic. What is your central idea or theme? Which questions will you be asking from the text? Which aspects still belong to your topic, which ones are off limits? Some course convenors will ask you to submit an abstract (a short description of what problems you are planning to solve in your paper) or a provisional table of contents before you start writing.

 In any case, check out if there is a style sheet or manual (such as MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers) for formatting your paper which is favoured by your department. For the FAU, you can find a style sheet at .


 Your research should not be limited to the catalogue of your library. If a book is unavailable at your current location, you may still be able to find it on remote loan. Please note that remote loan may take at least 7-14 days. Books are good sources of information, however, it is the articles in academic journals which are the most recent.

Make sure to make ample use of databases such as the MLA International Bibliography (at the FAU, you can access it via > Datenbanken > Anglistik und Amerikanistik). Do not go and see your course convenor to launch a complaint that it is impossible for you to find any secondary sources before you have checked the MLA database. Note that the MLA database is a bibliography, not a catalogue – it will tell you what texts there are, but that does not mean they are available. JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. You must be logged in via your institution (in this case, the FAU network) to benefit from privileges such as downloading a PDF or printing, but anyone can register a free account which allows you to read up to three texts at the same time online. You may also be able to find academic texts via specialized search engines such as Google Scholar. Be wary of sources which are unacceptable for citing in academic contexts, such as private fansites, an online encyclopedia anyone can edit, or other students' papers.


If you found this article helpful, you may be interested in the following publication:

Simone Broders, Academic Skills. An Introduction for English and American Studies (Fink/UTB, 2020).

German readers may also be interested in my previous publication
Simone Broders, Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten in Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Fink/ UTB, 2015).

Free sample pages of what a paper should look like are available for download.

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