How to write an A+ term paper, in 11 easy steps

Read this. It will help. I promise.

Going to an actual library helps.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo)

Term paper season is nearly upon us. Particularly for students of the humanities, this dreaded foe blocks the path to Christmas break with a daunting demand of 30, 40, even 50 double-spaced pages the weary student must somehow produce.

If you find yourself staring down just such a gauntlet, perhaps I can offer some help in the form of my A+ paper-writing system, which I now present to you.

You see, I graduated from college in three years, summa cum laude. But I never did homework past midnight, and I amply indulged in binge watching television. Which is all to say that though I don't deny being a major dork, I wasn't just doing schoolwork all day every day.

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One big reason I had time to watch pirated uploads of Scrubs so blurry they were basically radio (this was back when Netflix was a DVD mailer service) is the way I wrote my term papers. I perfected this system throughout my undergraduate years and into grad school, where it helped me submit my master's thesis six months before anyone else in my graduating class. I've been told by classmates who adopted it that this system is revolutionary.


1. Pick your topic wisely

If this is an elective course, pick whatever you want. But if it's part of your major, try to select something inside your developing wheelhouse. For example, I was a political science major. When I took a class on Plato and Aristotle, I did my term paper on their views of justice. In later philosophy classes, I wrote about other thinkers' conceptions of justice. Then, in my last philosophy course, my paper compared justice in the works of four philosophers from Plato to present. I barely had to do new research at all. Most humanities and social sciences degrees require a final project to graduate, and that will be easier if you've spent four years honing your expertise in a few specific areas within your discipline instead of writing scattershot on whatever strikes your fancy.

2. Go to the library

Like, the actual, physical library. Professors like books, and you should like them too, because (as will soon be evident) they make your research process easier. At the library, don't spend much time determining whether each reference is perfectly targeted to your paper. Err on the side of checking out too much, not too little. (Pro tip: Bring a reusable grocery bag to carry your haul.)

3. Use Google

If you have primary sources old enough to be in the public domain, start googling. To be clear: You are not googling to find the sources, but to find the right content within them without having to read the whole thing. So, for example, one paper I wrote was about Justin Martyr, an early theologian, and inclusivism, a doctrine about who gets into heaven. I googled "Justin Martyr inclusivism" and was immediately presented with blog posts directing me to relevant portions of his work — even though he never used the word "inclusivism" — as well as online versions of his writings where I could copy and paste potentially useful text instead of having to transcribe it. This saves considerable time.

4. Fire up Amazon

Assuming you have secondary sources (basically any other book), search for them on Amazon. Many will let you "look inside." Use the search function to find mentions of terms key to your topic. Even if you cannot preview the results online, you will get the page number, which you can use to check that quote in your hard copy instead of scanning the whole book.

5. Use Google again

Use Google to do the same thing with any books or articles not available to "look inside" on Amazon. Google Books can be a good resource here. If that fails, try adding "PDF" to your search of the work's title.

6. Check the index

For any books or articles with no good results in any online search, use the index. Again, the central goal here is to avoid wasting time reading irrelevant stuff.

7. Create a sources document

Whenever you find a relevant passage in a book, mark it in your physical copy with a Post-it note. Read the surrounding paragraphs to see if they have other valuable information. When you find all the useful parts of a book, type (or copy from online) each relevant fact or excerpt in a single Word document. Put in your footnotes as you go and sort your quotes into topical categories. When you've done this for all your sources, you will have a file with every quote and fact you need to reference in your paper. Your citations will be already done, and you will have familiarized yourself with your topic in the process. Research is complete.

8. Make an outline

Take the assignment you were given and the knowledge you've picked up during your research and create a comprehensive outline of your paper. Be detailed. Your outline should be at least a page long for every eight double-spaced pages you plan to write. If you can make it longer, do it.

9. Sort your sources

Your research document has all your footnoted quotes and facts sorted by topic. Now, take those items and drop them into the relevant portions of your outline. (I like to make the outline text bold so it clearly stands out from the sources.) If your outline is thorough and your research adequate, the result should be similar in length to — if not longer than — your final product.

10. Now, write your paper

You've already done all the research and planning. You know the topic backwards and forwards. The outline evolves into your sections headings. Every time you need a quote or reference, it will already be at hand with a pre-made citation. In short, the actual writing will be super quick. For total time, from research to final edits, anticipate about one hour (two on the far outside) per double-spaced page for A-level work.

11. Exhale and enjoy

You're done! Binge TV awaits.

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