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Lesson 14: How to Write, Part 3: The Term Paper

Gary North, Ph.D.
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Lesson 14


Part 3: Term Paper

I know a lot about writing term papers. I have been writing term papers every year since 1955. I write at least two a week.

Take a look at my "term papers" for just one outlet, Lew Rockwell's Web site. These are all "extra credit." I don't get paid for them.

There are over 500 of my essays on Rockwell's site. Here are some of my less controversial topics:

Gary North and Linda Ronstadt [true confessions]
My Big Mistake [wrong role model]
Your Clock Is Ticking [high school graduation]
The Horror of Being a Billionaire [on Oprah]
The Elements of Leadership
Advice to a Young Scholar
Guys Didn't Scream for Elvis
Down from the Mountain [a great video/DVD]
Ray Bradbury's Virtual Reality Universe
The Greatest Movie Action Scene of All Time
A Female Athlete Who Could Compete With Men
Ode to a Dead Tree
Blacks, Whites, and Blues

Pick three essays, click to each one, and click PRINT.

Most of these I wrote in three hours or less. The first one, on my big mistake, took almost a day. Maybe that was a big mistake, too.

I write a book a year, usually. The long ones are over 1,000 pages, although they take me longer than a year to write.

I also write a weekly Tip of the Week e-letter. You can sign up by using the subscription box here: www.garynorth.com. (Honestly, why wouldn't you subscribe? It's like free money in your email box every Saturday morning.)

I usually write a short daily column for this Web site.

I am making a point. I know what I'm talking about when it comes to writing.


Don't use an outline unless it helps you get started.

The how-to-study books tell you to use an outline before you write a term paper. But most writers don't use outlines. The number of outlines that I have used in my life is probably under 50. I have written over 45 books and thousands of articles.

For normal people in normal courses, outlining is a skill that is rarely used by successful students, and surely not the tightly structured outlines that the how-to- study books recommend.

Instead, write reminders on note cards or in a computer data base program like the free one from Copernic: Copernic Desktop Search.


When you type your notes, stick in keywords after any paragraph, so that you can search for these keywords and be taken right to the paragraph. Copernic Desktop Search highlights them.

Say that you are reading a Web page on-line. You save it for future reference. Click "File." Then click "Save As." This will download the page to your hard disk. You must type in a name for it before you can save it to your hard drive. Use keywords that will help you retrieve it later. Copernic Desktop Search will search for the words in the title you assign to the page and also in the text of the article.

If you read a book and type notes that summarize the page, or if you type in direct quotations, do this. Either immediately before or immediately after the paragraph, type in keywords. Copernic Desktop Search will search for these. It will highlight these words. You will be able to locate the paragraph when you are writing your first draft.

I have said that you don't need to make an outline. All right, maybe a C-average student needs to use an outline for writing a term paper that he doesn't want to write in a course that he really hates. He should go to the library and read a how-to-study guide with a chapter on outlining. Maybe his word processor has an outlining feature. Mine does, and mine is vintage 1990. I have used this outlining feature on a few occasions, but not very often.

An outline assumes that you know the material in extreme detail. You don't know this when you begin. After you have done your research, the outline forces you into a mental box. Your term paper may be detailed, but it will be dull. Who wants to read a dull paper? Who wants to write one? Nobody. You should feel strongly about your topic, and an outline strips you of your passion. It's a killer.

You can make a list of things you want to cover, so that you won't forget. Put them in a loose order. If that's what you mean by "outline," fine. Use an outline. But don't use the detailed, multiple indented lines format that you learned -- or were told to learn -- in the seventh grade.

The word processor has made outlining an obsolete skill, and it was never a very useful skill or widely used skill. A word processor lets you add things you forgot, blip out things that are wrong, move sentences and paragraphs to where they belong. It lets you revise. Who needs a detailed outline? Only someone without much passion.


You want to write something worth reading? Pour your heart onto a computer screen. Put on the screen whatever you feel. Make it passionate.

Then revise it. Fill in the gaps. Provide support material. Put it aside for a week. Come back. Revise it again. Tone down your emotional language. Don't make it sound as though you are shouting.

Eventually, the essay will achieve whatever goal you have for it: make people laugh or cry or vote differently or give you an A or send you money.

Tell a story. Share a piece of your mind. Offer your opinion. But let it come from inside you. If it doesn't, it won't be worth reading.

Here is what matters in effective writing: the words must read as though they were being spoken. Does the essay sound right when you read it out loud? Reading is a unique skill. We "hear" through our eyes. Does your term paper sound right visually?

Here is a writing technique that can work, but it's not real-world. Get a partner who also has a term paper to turn in. You are in the final stages of the process. The papers are due in two days.

Print out two copies of each paper. You read his aloud to him. He reads yours aloud to you. Whenever either of you says or thinks these words, "What I mean by that is. . . ," the explainer marks his copy of his paper. That section has to be revised. Your paper should never require you to be there to explain what you mean.

Fact: you can hear what's wrong even when you can't read what's wrong.

Why isn't this joint reading a real-world technique? Because you won't schedule enough time. You should budget time for a joint reading, but you won't, and even if you did, your reading partner won't.

If you ever do adopt this technique, your papers will improve. It's a good technique. It just isn't realistic. I mention it, but I don't require it as part of my course.

If your mother has time to read your paper to you, have her do this. Print out two copies: one for her and one for you. She reads; you mark your copy. When your words sounds lumpy, mark them. When they sound confused, mark them. This is a kind of real-world technique. You really can do this. You really should do this. But I don't require it.

When I say that words sound lumpy, you know what I mean. Words aren't lumpy. Gravy is sometimes lumpy. Words aren't. Yet you know what I mean. "Lumpy" is a metaphor.

Do you really want to learn how to write? I can't teach you this. No book can teach you this. Three years on the student newspaper can begin to teach you this, by forcing you to teach yourself.

I'll bet you already knew this.


If you estimate that you must spend two hours of research budget for each 250-word page of a term paper, you had better budget your time.

You must also schedule at least two preliminary drafts for the paper. Two. Not one. Two. Minimum. Then write the final draft.


Use an encyclopedia for two things: (1) overview; (2) bibliography. You're looking for leads.

Begin with Wiki. It's free. Its entries usually have bibliographical entries. Type in your search topic, and then add "wiki" to the search.

Warning: quoting directly from a general encyclopedia is considered bad form academically. The higher in academia you go, the truer this rule is. Quoting from specialized encyclopedias is acceptable, but only for summarizing, rarely for direct citation, unless you know that the author is a well-respected expert.

Be ready to drop the topic if you hit a brick wall. So, begin research early -- almost from the first week. This is so you have time to drop the topic.

Use the footnoting system that your teacher requires. If you aren't sure, ask. If your teacher doesn't care, I recommend The University of Chicago Manual of Style. It may be in your high school library. I don't like the Modern Language Association (MLA) approach. (Example: the MLA footnote doesn't tell you what company published a book, only the city where it was published. Who cares where it was published if you don't know the publisher? I say this as an author and a publisher.)

The standard work for college research papers is by the University of Chicago's Kate L. Turabian. My mother used her book in college. I used her book, beginning in my freshman year in high school. I used it so often that I knew the rules by my sophomore year in college. A Web guide for footnotes and bibliographical entries is found here:



Am I serious? Yes!

Warning: if you write with a computer, do not revise an early draft. Instead, download the earlier draft onto your screen. Save it with a new name: [title].2. Then revise [title].2. You may decide at some point that your first draft is better. If you have revised it into oblivion, you won't have a back-up copy.

There is another consideration. If your paper is really good, your teacher may think you copied it from another student or bought it on-line. If you have two earlier drafts to bring in, this will end all suspicion.

Back to the real world. How many preliminary drafts will you actually write? Maybe one. Maybe none. Don't kid me. But at least let's both clear what we both know to be true. To do a good job on a term paper, you need two drafts, a cooling off period, and a final draft, written two days before it's due.

Why two days? Because if you write the final draft the night before it's due, at 2 a.m., when you re-read it the next morning -- which you had better do -- it will read like a 2 a.m. term paper.

You need one full day to let it sit. Your mind will then percolate on the final revision day. When you read the final draft on the afternoon (not the night) before it's due, you will see errors, and you will have time to correct them. What you thought was a final draft will turn out to be your next-to-the-final-draft. I guarantee it.

Here how your schedule should look in the week that it's due:

Tuesday: your partner reads it to you.

Revise it to improve its style.

Wednesday: nothing.

Thursday: Re-read it. Make emergency revisions. Print it.

Friday: Turn it in.

You have heard from adults about how tough it was in their day. You know: they walked five miles to school in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. Well, there really are two ways in which you have it a lot easier than my generation ever did: (1) hand-held calculators instead of slide rules; (2) word processors instead of typewriters. Your word processor has a spell-checker, and you can revise in a flash -- no erasing, no complete re-writes to fix one page.

Since you've got it, use it.

Do your preliminary scheduling for a term paper on a separate sheet of paper: this much time at the library on this day, this much time for writing an outline, this much time for going back to the library, this much time for a hand-written first drafts, etc. Get clear in your mind and on a sheet of paper (in pencil) what you have to do in order to stay on schedule.

When you think you know what you have to do, week by week, before each final deadline, enter the mini-deadlines in your weekly DayMinder. Write the final schedule on your desk calendar and/or your monthly DayMinder. (Again, I don't care which brand you buy. Just buy something.)

This is an aspect of counting the cost. Each mini- deadline is like a preliminary heat in a race. To win the race, you must run the heats.


I regard the British historian Paul Johnson as the greatest historian of my generation. He writes well. He writes fast. He includes the relevant facts. There are few history books as good as Modern Times. His History of the American People comes close. He is a great lecturer. He is, in short, a master. Here is what he wrote in 2004, after three decades of success.

In the art of writing, one of the central problems is what to put in and what to leave out. In the past, I have always been one for putting in. I felt myself full of good things I did not want the reader to miss. So my books got longer and longer. This gigantism spent itself, and from the gross satisfaction of putting everything in I turned to the more delicate pleasure of deciding what to leave out. I discovered I could write down everything a reasonable person needed to know about the Renaissance in 40,000 words, and I have since done Napoleon and Washington at the same length. It has proved to be great fun.



If you want to write well, write often.

Tell a story.

Energy is better than precision. (Not in chemistry, of course.)

Don't use a detailed outline. Use a loose outline, so you won't forget.

Use note cards or a data base program.

Write three drafts.

With draft #2, have your study partner read your paper to you.

If necessary, revise the third (final) draft the day before it's due.

Allocate your time weeks in advance.


Read an article on anything that interests you. Google the topic and add "wiki." See what a good term paper looks like.

Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page, one book.

If you want to make more money, keep more of your money, and enjoy your money more, subscribe to my free Tip of the Week. The subscription box is here: www.garynorth.com.
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