18 Tips to Write a Seminar Paper ✔

reading time: ca. 6 min

As a student of Cultural Journalism & Creative Writing in my fifth semester I consider myself to be quite well-trained in writing text, and I've had my fair share of seminar papers (the most recent ones being a typology of Twitter accounts and an analysis of Graphic Novel Storytelling).

Just to clarify: English is not my native language, so don't judge my writing skills by this article :)

In my experience, half the work is done before actually writing, so i divided this article into three parts: Pre-Writing, Writing and Post-Writing. So here's a round-up of various tips I picked up along the way:


In principle composing a seminar paper is not very different than composing a novel. Put simply, you have to follow these 3 basic guidelines:
- What do you want to tell?  
- Why do you want to tell it? 
- How do you tell it?
In a fictional story those components would be the plot, the motive, and the dramatic composition; in your seminar paper it would be your subject-matter, your central question, and your choice of chapters, sub-chapters etc.

Find a topic that interests you. At least a little bit. Of course a term paper isn't the greatest party on earth, but when you have no fun at all during the process, you're probably not going to make it to the end. Professors are usually quite tolerant when it comes to this, so try to find a question or subject-matter that draws your interest in any sort. Is there anything you'd like to find out about this subject? Or do you find that all previous essays on that topic have had a very one-sided view on the subject? Maybe that's your chance to explore the matter yourself! * 

Don't start one week before the deadline. I know, it's very tempting to procrastinate and defer something as unpleasant as a paper. But as soon as you bring yourself to overcome your bloody fear you will feel a hundred times better than trying to push your guilty conscience to the back of your mind, believe me.
In your planner mark the D-Day as well as the day one month or even two months before that date **. That way you will be aware of the time left until the submission date, and plan your working steps in time.

Find good sources. And by "good" I mean a) reliable and b) adequate. As a general rule, don't just take the first google search result you stumble upon. If you are using internet resource such as wikipedia, make sure to examine the references at the bottom of the page and instead base your theories on those unfiltered first-hand sources because they will contain more precise information. That will add to the level of detail and authenticity in your work. 
The closer you keep to the primary source, the smaller the risk that anyone has diminished or misinterpreted the original content. The most authentic material to work with are of course your good old trusty literature sources, so don't avoid the books just because they can look old and dusty and sometimes pretentious. 
That's where point b) comes into effect: Your sources should be appropriate for your specific subject-matter. For instance, online research (which provides both infinite supply of information but also a severe lack of verification) can be very useful when you are working on a "young" topic such as Twitter. Whereas for a seminar paper on - i don't know - the relevance of Shakespeare's Hamlet in modern times or whatever, you should primarily consult the library.

Take notes while reading. That will allow the information to settle in your memory and also saves you half the time because you have already filtered out the relevant information for your paper! Some people will actually write their paper parallel to reading their source, saving time but increasing the risk to borrow or rephrase entire passages from their source instead of coming up with their own ideas and expressions. That's something to keep in mind.

Organisation is key: Always write down immediately what source your notes are based on (title, author, publication year, page numbers for quotes etc). Trust me, if you think you're gonna remember later out of which book you got which facts, you won't. Also, don't forget to number your pages, so you won't mix up your material. It will help you keep track of the sources and materials you used during the process.

Break down your project into smaller bits. *** What? I haven't even started writing, and you're already talking about taking breaks? Yes, that's right. Split your work into several small steps, so it won't be as overwhelming and intimidating as before. 
For example, choose (and mark in your planner) one day for compiling good sources only. Take another day to read through those sources - don't forget to take notes and organise your notepads -, then draw up a first rough draft of your paper, and so on...

Be clear about your 3 components before you start writing. Especially the central question, the hypothesis. This is the question which you will propose to answer in your term paper. Keep your hypothesis clear and simple. Both the reader/professor and you need to have a perfectly clear idea of what your seminar paper is all about. It's best to know your hypothesis before you begin research. 

Find a setting that supports your work. For me that is a pretty much quiet, bright room with a big empty wooden table where i can sit and type without too many distractions - maybe try your basement or university library - , a pot of black tea to get my system going, some dried fruits and nuts to snack on in-between, and some good background music. Maybe stick to a playlist with instrumental songs only - personally i prefer film scores while writing - and avoid songs with lyrics, so you won't automatically try to sing along to everything instead of focussing on your paper. I also recommend using headphones, as they will shut out all other noises around you. Chose your most productive time of the day, for me it's early in the morning, but maybe you're a night owl like i was a few years ago. Sit down, surround yourself with all the books, notes, snacks you need. Concentrate on your central question. Set an alarm clock for your lunch break. Start writing. 


First the formalities: 
- title page (1 p.), displaying the title, your name, seminar title, professor etc.
- index
- introduction (1 p.)
- main text (around 10 p.)
- conclusion (1-2 p.) 
- bibliography, divided into "Primary Texts" and "Secondary Material"

In the introduction frame your hypothesis. Make your question specific: composing your text around this central question will be easier if you focus on a narrower rather than broader topic. It helps to try rewriting the hypothesis until you have a more focussed idea. 

Don't let the quotes speak for you. This is one of the most common mistakes I made at the beginning; I thought, quoting other smarter people than me instead of putting things in my own words would make my work more authentic. Nope. Major error. Actually the contrary is the case. Put it into your own words! This way your professor will know you actually understand what you are saying, instead of brainlessly repeating things parrot-fashion.
However it is absolutely fine to back up a statement of yours by footnoting it and referring to a similar quotation. Note: this is not just fine, it is obligatory. Always give credit to your references!

Have breaks in-between. As you may have noticed, I'm a big fan of breaking your work into bite-size portions instead of gulping it down in one go, so to speak. It's easier to maintain concentration for a long time when you allow your body and mind to take a breather every hour or so. I like to call them "creative breaks". Grab a snack, watch a youtube video, blast up your music and dance around, draw something, take a walk around the block, do a quick workout... whatever floats your boat.

Don't be vague. I know, you're probably tempted to keep your statements rather broad-brush. You don't want to commit yourself to a certain thesis because you don't want to give a wrong opinion or claim anything false (and when it comes to facts, of course those mustn't be false), but you have to understand one thing: a term paper is your individual attempt of approaching a matter. You are examining a specific question, and when it comes to your personal observations and conclusions, there is no wrong or right. All you need to do is explain yourself. Have a clear guiding question (i think i mentioned this often enough now, right?), formulate a thesis statement and justify your arguments, using examples or references. As long as your theories make sense, they aren't wrong.

Use the spell check of your computer / use a dictionary! Since this is a written assignment, be sure to double-check your grammar and spelling. Try to be as specific as possible and use a clear articulation. Don't through technical terms around though - this will not make you sound more intelligent, but rather like all-mouth-and-no-trousers. Sometimes it is better to describe something in simple words rather than find a single super-fancy term for it.

Finish each working unit with a treat. Do it in a sort of carrot-and-stick way: motivate yourself with a treat - like watching your favourite TV series (Breaking Bad. nough said.) - which you'll be allowed to have after finishing your daily workload.  



Did you mark your sources? Whether that is a reference text or a word-for-word quotation, make sure to always mark it distinctly in the footnotes (and your bibliography). This should happen while you are writing, but in case you forgot, re-read your term paper thoroughly and check of your sources and citations are correct.

Edit your text. Best let someone else read it to see whether there is any ambiguity in terms of content or grammar.

Don't rush things. After finishing your final draft of the paper, you probably just want to get that thing out of your sight and never have to touch it again, but I've got a better suggestion. Leave your term paper untouched for a day or even a week if you still got time. Just let it sit there and allow everything to rest. Go out, be with your friends, do whatever the heck you feel like doing. Then, after a day or so, read your entire seminar paper for the very last time, this time with "fresh" eyes. That way you'll be able to look at things from a different, more objective perspective, maybe spotting some odd syntaxes you overlooked before or the one or other redundant sentence.

Don't hand it in at the very last minute, especially if you submit your paper per post. It's always safe to have a back-up day or two. Just in case.

can you spot the ink stain on my index finger? i guess that's how you tell someone is a dedicated writer :'D

* check in your library or on the internet to see if there is sufficient material available on your chosen subject. If you find too little, try to rephrase your idea in a way that it can be supported by the existing literature.

** for a term paper of 10 to 20 pages you will require about one month to collect enough material from libraries and other sources as well as typing out the text. if you have time constraints you should take at least one week to research and write the paper, however the more time you allow yourself, the better your result will be.

*** i never really accounted this a specific advice - because for me it was a given, just part of the process of working step by step, i mean how else do you proceed? - until Jenn mentioned this as one of the things she learned in college.

Looks like i've almost written a term-paper-length text about writing a term paper, ha ha! Well, i do hope i could be of help to someone. if nothing else, i will absolutely follow my own advice by the time i get to write another seminar paper, that's for sure :)

Another school post you might enjoy:

Tips to Be a straight A Student

Good luck ~


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