I often hear from college & university professors that many of their students struggle with writing. Therefore, I have written a guide specifically for college and university students on how to write an academic paper. However, the advice provided can also be helpful for anyone writing any kind of research paper. This guide aims to improve your writing and ability to articulate your perspective without overwhelming you with rules. The author is Mr. Hamza K. Omullah, a researcher and Founder of HAMNIC Solutions.
Non-fiction class papers can be categorized as research papers or topic papers. Research papers require independent research, while topic papers use course resources. This guide is applicable to both types.
No matter what type of paper you are writing, it is essential to utilize the course readings. The readings are meant to help you comprehend the course material, both in and out of the class. If they weren't important, why would we assign them? The aim of any paper is to evaluate how well you can apply what you have learned in the course, which necessitates using the concepts and readings from it. After completing your paper, make certain that you have cited the course readings in your bibliography. If you haven't, it's possible that what you've written isn't very relevant to the course. And always remember to cite course readings correctly, just like anything else.
Whether your academic paper involves outside research or not, you need to have a thesis statement. Once you have an idea of what you want to say, and have some grasp of what others have said,
you need to make your ideas more concrete by coming up with a thesis sentence(s). A thesis indicates the main argument for your paper. The point of any academic paper is to persuade your reader that you have
something to say that he or she should care about. A good thesis should be debatable, specific, and concise. The following is not a good thesis:
The history of the Soviet Union is very interesting and complex.
Lots of things are interesting and complex, and I challenge you to find a country whose history isn’t. While it is concise and somewhat specific, this thesis is not really debatable. A good thesis might be as follows:
The Soviet Union's history illustrates the issues involved in centralized economic planning and the development of a bureaucratized society.
This thesis is debatable, it is specific, and it is reasonably concise. It takes one side of a possibly refutable argument. One can imagine someone arguing that the history of the USSR indicates the problems of political totalitarianism and says nothing about economic planning. The basis for your supporting arguments should be the material that has been covered in class and in the readings, and, if required, from outside sources. The purpose of taking a course is to learn a framework for analyzing new phenomena (whether natural, social, literary, or artistic), and formal papers are an opportunity to demonstrate that you have learned enough to do such an analysis. Please note that your aim should be to persuade your "reader" rather than your professor. When professors read academic papers, they're not the audience, rather they are the judge, determining how well they think your work would convince someone else. Don’t worry about convincing your professors; worry about convincing “someone else.”
It's crucial to state your thesis at the beginning of your paper to guide your view and inform your readers. Stick to it throughout the paper as you give your informed opinion on the topic.
As a lawyer, defend your thesis by presenting sources as evidence to the judge, not the jury. This works in both directions. Sources that back up your argument are great because you can quote or cite them to build up your evidence, like eyewitnesses to a crime. Sources that contradict what you have to say are important as well because you must present arguments for why you believe that contradictory arguments are incorrect or incomplete. If you found a source that argued that the history of the USSR teaches us nothing about the feasibility of economic planning, then you would have to try to refute it or explain its incompleteness. If the defendant has an alibi, you must either prove it false or demonstrate that it does not exonerate them. Additionally, you should address counterarguments made by other writers and explain why they do not undermine your own argument.
Introductions are just that. They allow you to introduce your argument to your reader and vice versa. They also try to convince the reader why he should care about what you have to say. Part of writing a good thesis is building up to it with an introduction that whets the reader’s appetite. Don’t just drop your reader in the middle of an argument. Start with something interesting and sufficiently general, and then draw your reader in by applying that general idea to the topic at hand. Introductions should be general, but not too general. A bad introductory sentence is:
Karl Marx was a very important thinker.
This is bad because you can substitute hundreds of names for “Karl Marx” and it would still make sense. You want your intro to say something reasonably specific about your subject, like:
Karl Marx was the first important thinker to argue that capitalism causes exploitation.
See how that really addresses something of substance? You could go on from there to talk about the nature of exploitation, and how he defines capitalism, and then conclude it with a thesis that explains why he thinks capitalism causes exploitation. Conclusions are also just that: a chance for you to conclude something. Don’t end by saying something like:
Karl Marx was an interesting and important thinker who said some controversial things about capitalism.
Like the bad intro, it doesn’t say anything. A better-concluding paragraph could start with:
Karl Marx’s argument about exploitation under capitalism is ultimately flawed because...
And then broadly summarize your argument. Would a prosecuting attorney end a closing statement this way: “In conclusion, the defendant did some good things and some bad things and I really can’t say much about her otherwise?” Of course not. Conclude by telling your readers what conclusions they can draw from your paper. Tell her why she should care about what you’ve just said. Provide her with the moral of the story.
Everyone’s favourite subject. The idea behind citation is simple: when you make use of other people’s specific ideas, you must give them credit for those ideas. As a writer, you have the right to articulate your own ideas and opinions, as well as the right to draw upon the work of those who have come before you. With those rights comes the responsibility to both inform your readers of which ideas are yours and which are not, and to give credit to others when you make use of their work. This is your way of showing others that you have both done your research and understood the importance of your sources in developing your own arguments.
My preference on style is that you use in-text citations with a bibliography at the end, i.e. some version of APA style. For example:
Some people have argued that Marx’s concept of alienation relates to the notion of commodity production (Oversveen 2021, p. 35).
NOTE: space between the end of words and open parenthesis, no space between open parenthesis and authors’ names, close parenthesis then period.
To give a citation, use the name(s) of the author(s), the date of the specific text, and page number(s). Unless you are citing the argument of a whole book or article, you must indicate the pages where the specific thing you mention is discussed. It also shows the reader(s) that you actually read the text in question. If you are using an idea that pervades the whole source, then you can leave it without a page number. Just make sure there are no exact quotes or close paraphrases of specific pages.
You must provide an in-text (not just a listing in the bibliography) citation, including a page number, when you paraphrase or quote an author word for word. You must provide an in-text citation when you use statistics that you obtained from a source.
These are the unbreakable rules. If you break them, you are guilty of plagiarism. You are assumed to be familiar with the student handbook’s discussion of academic honesty. I take academic dishonesty very seriously. My ability to detect and then find things you have cut-and-pasted from the Web exceeds your ability to fool me with such cut-and-paste jobs, so don’t even try it because I will find the source material and I will initiate the academic dishonesty process.
This sentence uses a quote and must include an in-text citation:
As Lavoie (2020, p. 6) argues, “Such knowledge is dispersed among market participants.”
NOTE: You should always introduce a quote, rather than just sticking it in the middle of a paragraph identified only by the citation. Also, quotes should never be placed back-to-back without any text in between.
If you had decided to paraphrase this quote, you would also have to cite:
Lavoie (2020, p. 6) argues that human knowledge is dispersed among traders in the marketplace.
Writing either of the previous sentences and not giving a citation is not acceptable. Again, you have the right to use whatever sources you see fit, but with that right comes the responsibility to inform your readers of where and how you obtained your information. That is the purpose of a citation. Think about a lawyer who said, “Some people saw the accused commit the crime.” Wouldn’t you want to know who those people were and exactly what they saw? When you use ideas or information or statistics, giving an in-text citation is just like calling specific witnesses. You need to do this to make your case. This is equally true if you try to use ideas more generally:
One perspective on capitalism is to recognize that it helps overcome the fact that human knowledge is dispersed throughout the marketplace (Lavoie 2020, p. 6).
Leaving that sentence without citation is also not acceptable. The reason is that it identifies a specific “perspective” and implies that it is not your original idea. Therefore, you must indicate where it came from. You don’t have to cite your sources every single time you come back to that main idea; however, you must cite them the first time.
In reality, knowing when to cite is as much an acquired skill as anything else. There are a few unbreakable rules, such as citing a direct quote, or a paraphrase or statistics. Beyond that, use your judgment. It is always better to cite too much than too little. To continue the metaphor, you want to cite whenever you are relying on evidence gathered or argued by someone else. Your sources are like witnesses, and a good prosecutor would tell the jury “Witness so-and-so saw the defendant do it” in constructing her argument. And witnesses for the other side must be cross-examined!
If you choose to use the APA citation style, you are required to create a bibliography at the end of the paper which includes all the material you have cited within the text. Do not include items in your bibliography that you have not cited in the text of your paper, and don't cite things that aren’t in your bibliography. Some people say that sometimes they get ideas from a book but don’t directly use it. That’s crap. If you got ideas from it, then you better cite it. It doesn't belong in the bibliography if you didn’t get ideas or information from it. If you are familiar with the official APA citation style, please use it. If you have any reference books that you got in FYP or FYS, make use of them. At the very least, the bibliographic style should look like the following examples:
Fenton-Smith, B., Humphreys, P., & Walkinshaw, I. (2017). English medium instruction in higher education in Asia-Pacific: From policy to pedagogy. Springer International Publishing.
Rucker, P., & Parker A. (2018, January 8). White House struggles to silence talk of Trump’s mental fitness. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/
Alam, K., & Imran, S. (2015). The digital divide and social inclusion among refugee migrants: A case in regional Australia. Information Technology & People, 28(2), 344-365. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-04-2014-0083
I’m not too fussy about the details here, as long as you get all the relevant information in your entry. However, do be careful how you cite articles in edited volumes. The editor(s) of the book (i.e., the name(s) on the cover) is usually not the author(s) of all the articles in the book. Usually, the editor(s) have only one or two of them at most. You must cite each article separately by the name of the author(s) of each article. Check to make sure you are clear on whose article or chapter is whose. Also, make sure you underline or italicize (pick one and stick with it) the book title and put the article or chapter title in quotes. For more examples of bibliography formatting, and the relevant information on the course readings, consult the syllabus. All of that information is there for you.
A word of advice about Internet sources: Before using Google, do your homework. Be familiar with the journal literature and the popular sources that are also available on paper. Learn how to use EconLit and other scholarly and popular indexes. Then, and only then, should you Google. Why? The beauty of the Internet is that it is pretty much unregulated; that is also its greatest weakness. Net sources are on average much less reliable than printed ones because even though scholarly material is available via Google, a much larger percentage of what you find is, in one way or another, self-published and therefore less reliable. The best way to determine whether a Net source is a legitimate one is having read lots of printed material and having a sense of what kinds of arguments are considered reasonable. If you go to the Net first, I guarantee you’ll get tons of sources, most of which will be worthless. However, if you do find a usable Net source, you should cite it like any other work. Note that there must be an author and a title of the page or paper in question. Then you can provide the complete URL and either a date listed on the page or the date that you accessed the information.
Le Couteur, D., Kendig, H., Naganathan, V., & McLachlan, A. (2010). The ethics of prescribing medications to older people. In S. Koch, F. M. Gloth & R. Nay (Eds.), Medication management in older adults (pp. 29-42). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-60327-457-9_3
The hardest part about making use of sources is not finding them or learning how to manipulate the mechanics of citation. The hard part is evaluating whether a source is reliable or not. This is especially true on the Net but is also true for printed material. The best way to become a good judge of sources is to read them. For example, papers that keep being cited by other authors are probably important. But the only way to know that is to have done a fair amount of reading and research (including the reference lists of the sources you find) and enter the ongoing conversation. And that requires taking the time and doing the work.
Nothing is more disappointing and annoying than sloppy-looking paper. If you think it doesn’t matter, you’re wrong. What it tells your readers (and me) is that you don’t give a damn about what you’ve said. Show some pride in what you do and take the time to make it at least look like you care. You should feel flattered that someone has asked you to tell them what you have to say about a subject. When you turn in wrinkled pages with no page numbers or titles, it says that you don’t take yourself or your ideas seriously. This holds whether you’re turning the paper in electronically or hard copy.
The following is a list of things your papers, first drafts included, must contain. This includes any drafts you send as a file attached to an email or placed in a drop box on Angel. If I print that file, it should look just like a paper you would hand in as a hard copy. That means:
A few comments on this list. First, pick a title that says something about your paper. A paper on Albania should not be titled “Albania” or “The Economic History of Albania.” Instead, try “Albania: An Example of the Failures of Stalinism.” The last one says something, but the first two don’t. Try not to make your title a question; make it a statement that summarizes the main argument in the paper. Your title should also not be a complete sentence. It should be a short, declarative summary of the paper.
Second, if you have a long paper that seems to be divided into distinct sections, break it up by using section headings. For example, if the first half of your paper on Albania was about socialist theory, you could use a section heading to indicate it. Before you start the next section, say on the history of Albania, you could use another section heading, and then use one to indicate your conclusion. This will help keep your organization straight and make it clearer for your readers.
Third, number your pages. This enables me to give you help or criticism on specific pages. No little thing annoys me more than a lack of page numbers. Ask my wife.
Fourth, give yourself enough time to do the assignment well. If you start two days before it’s due, I guarantee the paper will not be as good as it could be. The biggest cause of sloppy work and bad analysis is not taking your time. If you start enough in advance, you can run a draft or two and take the time to read them for analytical and grammatical errors. You should be the most merciless critic of your work. Write a draft and go over and over it; that’s what I do with my work. However, doing so requires time, so make the time to do the job right. If I have the time, and I usually do, I will be glad to read early drafts and outlines. Just ask me ahead of time.
Remember that grammar, spelling, and the correct use of the language all matter. I know that you all know how to do all of this correctly. You make mistakes because you are rushing to finish and/or you just don’t care very much. Making simple mistakes makes you look uneducated and sends the message that you don’t care about your ideas. And if you don’t care, why should I?
The point of this guide is not to scare the hell out of you, it is to help you. It all boils down to this issue of pride. Have some pride in what you do, have some pride when people ask you for your thoughts, and have some pride when you present those thoughts to others. If you have some pride and care, you’ll take the time to construct good arguments and use (and cite) your sources properly, and the way you present your papers will reflect that pride.
There’s nothing mysterious about writing good papers. It is a skill that anyone can learn and master. Yes, it takes work, but what doesn’t? You’ll find that if you start caring about what you’re doing the work will seem less of a struggle, concentration will come easier and the rules will no longer be constraints, but rather the means through which you can communicate what you have to say. Remember the feeling when you were a little kid, and you brought home your first finger painting, and you were so proud of it that you insisted that it get hung on the fridge? It’s that pride in your work (and the feeling it generates) that ought to motivate everything you do, not just in college but in your whole life. If you care about what you do, the rest will take care of itself.