The writing process: How to create a term paper proposal

When you have a term paper assignment, your instructor may require that you submit a paper proposal before you begin the writing process. A proposal explains the focus of your term paper and how you will go about completing the assignment. Even if a proposal is not required, it’s still a good idea to create one for yourself.

Begin at the beginning

Whether required or not, preparing a research paper proposal is a good idea because it can help you through the most challenging part of the process—the beginning stages where you choose a topic and decide on how you will narrow your approach. A list of topics and resources to help you in choosing the subject and focus of your research paper can be found at Each topic listed is a clickable link to hundreds of full-text books, magazines and journals.

One of the texts available at Questia is Schaum’s Quick Guide to Writing Great Research Papers by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D. When it comes to narrowing your topic Rozakis said, “Every time you narrow a subject into a topic, remember your boundaries and parameters: time, length, audience, and purpose. Keep all other special considerations in mind as well. Always consider what you can handle within the restrictions you have been given — as well as what you would most enjoy writing about for several weeks or months.”

The big gamble

According to Alison J. Head, lead researcher of the University of Washington’s Project Information Literacy (PIL), the beginning stages are a challenge faced by students in community colleges, four-year public and even prestigious private institutions. Head was interviewed by John Wihbey for a January 27, 2012 post to Journalists Resource titled, “Research chat: Information scientist Alison Head on student habits.”

Head equates how students approach research as a “gamble” when students commit to a topic without knowing if there is sufficient research available to support the requirements of a paper. Because such an approach can prove risky for students, most tend to stick to “safe” topics and a few general resources such as Google, library databases and instructors themselves.

When asked to provide personal tips on how students might conduct research Head suggested, “I’ll use a source such as the Social Science Index. A citation analysis tells me who’s at the center of some scholarly discourse. A lot of times I’ll look for scholarly treatment and then look for mass media coverage in high-quality periodicals — The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, Salon, The New York Times.”

Taking steps

Creating a term paper proposal is a process comprised of a series of steps. Sometimes the process will result in the discovery that there is not enough research available for you to cover the topic within the requirements of your research assignment. If that is the case, consider yourself lucky that at least you haven’t invested weeks in research and writing only to find that you’ve hit a brick wall.

The Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS) suggests 23 basic steps in the research process from selecting your topic to turning your paper in on time. The steps that relate to the proposal process include:

  1. Select a general topic that interests you enough to spend weeks researching it. Let’s say, American Art.
  2. Make a list of key words and short phrases that specifically describe your topic. These could be: American artists, art timeline, early American art.
  3. Look up the key words to find those resources that give you background on the topic.
  4. Make note cards of the useful resources you found.
  5. Begin to focus your topic.
  6. Write a statement of purpose about your focused topic.
  7. Brainstorm questions about your topic and group them by category.
  8. List possible sources that will help you answer your questions and look into those sources.
  9. Draft your thesis statement.

Step 5, where you begin to focus on your topic, is the biggest challenge for most students. If your topic is too big then you won’t be able to cover it in the requirements of your assignment. If your topic is to narrow, then you may have repeat yourself in order to meet the length requirement of your paper. Neither choice will result is an “A” paper.

In your haste to complete the term paper assignment you will be tempted to skip the process of creating a proposal. The good news is that if you’re willing to take the time to explore your topic, narrow your approach, and find the best resources, your investment will pay off with a lower level of stress and a higher grade.

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