Taming the Term Paper

Even if it is not required, drafting a paper proposal is well worth the time and effort involved as it helps organize your thoughts and goals. 
Usually, the shorter the page limit, the more specific your motivating question will need to be. 

Term papers requiring original or independent research may be (at the discretion of the professor) anywhere from 10 to a daunting 25 pages in length. In preparing to write such a paper, you will confront several challenges: choosing a topic that satisfies the aims of the course while reflecting your own interests; delimiting the subject matter in order to arrive at a manageable focus and motivation, building your knowledge of the topic through research and analysis, and getting approval for your topic and preliminary feedback on your ideas from advisors.

For tips and advice on selecting and narrowing a topic, see the Topic Development section.

Researching the Paper

Once you have found a topic, specified a relevant ‘motivating question’, and checked to make sure that it is feasible in the allotted number of pages, you are ready to start your paper. In most cases, unless the instructor has included a practicum component in the course, you will not be conducting fieldwork for your written assignments. However, many of the texts you will be assigned to read are based on field research, so you should be prepared to evaluate the research methods, data, evidence, and arguments of each. Here are some additional strategies to consider: 

1. Compile an Annotated Bibliography. In an annotated bibliography, every entry is followed by a brief (2-3 sentence) description of the work and its relationship to your research topic. Organize the entries by sub-topics (e.g., “works about Brazil;” “works about Bolivia”), and then alphabetically by author within each section. This will help you to organize your material and to outline your paper. See an example here (link).

2.  Draft a Paper Proposal. Some professors might ask you to submit a paper proposal to get you started on your research and writing with plenty of time to spare for possible changes, and to give you early feedback. Generally, a paper proposal should not be more than 2-3 double-spaced pages, and should include the following: a paper title; a discussion of your topic, motivating questions, and possible conclusions; and a list of works you have consulted or are planning to consult. A paper abstract can serve a similar purpose to a proposal in a shorter form (typically a paragraph or 200-300 words).

3. Seek Early Feedback. Take advantage of any opportunity to receive early feedback. If for some reason your topic does not work out as you hoped, you want to make sure you have plenty of time to revise it before the deadline. In some courses instructors will offer to read early drafts or paper proposals (if you are unsure, just ask!). Some seminars devote time to in-class paper workshops. Depending on specific course policies, you may be allowed to exchange help and ideas with your classmates. Putting in the extra work ahead of time to troubleshoot an outline or an early draft will help to ward off and avoid any unpleasant surprises after the deadline.

Drafting and Revising

After you have finalized your topic and conducted the necessary research, you are ready to begin writing. Obviously, many of the characteristics of a “good” paper are not specific to anthropology. Having a coherent argument, supporting your claims with adequate evidence, and writing correctly and effectively are considered strengths in most disciplines. For an example of organization and writing styles, check out Professor George Mieu's writing strategies (LINK). If you need general help with your writing, The Harvard Writing Program (LINK) offers guidance and materials to help overcome common obstacles with organization, argumentation, or grammar.