Writing "From the Ground Up"
Stop thinking about it! Do not try to figure out the main idea of your term paper before you begin to write it. You carve it out as you go along.
I really mean it; do not let your mind try to come up with the idea right now. You have to search for the idea before you find it, and before you search for it you have to write some stuff.
Here is the way to write your term paper "from the ground up." That means you start with one article as the foundation of the paper, and you write about any ideas from the article that you find interesting. You do not know what the main idea of your term paper is going to be, but you are looking for the main idea of one interesting article.
1. Write a paragraph about the first article.
2. Find another article you can compare with the first, and write a paragraph about it.
3. Find a third article somehow related to the first two, and write a paragraph about it.
4. Continue like this until you have plenty of paragraphs about different articles, some paragraphs about class readings and other paragraphs about articles you found online.
5. Use this method for best efficiency: four to six sentences per paragraph (so each is about 100 words), each paragraph begins with a Paragraph Topic Sentence, each paragraph is about one idea you got from an article, and that idea is transmitted in the Paragraph Topic Sentence and explained in the body of the paragraph.
Gather Your Class Materials, and Start to Read
Let's pretend you are taking a class about leadership and you are required to write a term paper about some topic related to leadership. Skim through the introduction to an article or a chapter of the text. When you see an idea that is even remotely interesting to you, write a sentence about it. For example, you might read a few paragraphs of "Understanding Leadership" by Prentice and type this sentence:
Someone who wants to be a leader needs to know how to identify the different interests that motivate different people (Prentice, 1961).
You read another paragraph and find an interesting quotation. Prentice offers a definition of leadership:
Prentice's definition of leadership is, "the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants" (paragraph 3).
Why did you collect these two ideas from the article? It's because you need to type something or you're never going to get through this term paper!
So you continue to read until you notice some other idea worth sharing...
Prentice points out that the notion of a military leader -- tough, respected, and demanding unquestioning obedience -- is not the best type of leadership for nonmilitary situations. It is appropriate during war when life-and-death urgency leaves no time for questioning, only for resolute action. But does the military leader think this is the style of leadership he should use when the war is over and he holds a management position at a factory?
Now you have collected these three "pieces" of your paper. It's time to assemble them into a paragraph. First, decide which sentence will become the paragraph's main idea and which sentences explain it.
I would choose the idea that I think it most interesting and make it the first sentence of the paragraph. That way, the "paragraph topic sentence" (the main idea of the paragraph) will be an interesting one. So I put this idea first:
Paragraph Topic Sentence:
Prentice points out that the notion of a military leader -- tough, respected, demanding unquestioning obedience -- is not the best type of leadership for nonmilitary situations.
This idea seems interesting, because it raises questions in the reader's mind. Now I use a sequence like this to organize the other sentences around this "paragraph topic sentence."
When you paste these sentences into a document, you can free your mind and create some paragraphs based on the main ideas:
Prentice points out that the notion of a military leader -- tough, respected, demanding unquestioning obedience -- is not the best type of leadership for nonmilitary situations. It is appropriate during war when there is no time for questioning, only resolute action. But does the military leader think this is the style of leadership he should use when the war is over and he holds a management position at a factory? It would not be as effective. The manager at a factory does not have as much authority as a military leader, so he cannot get away with demanding silent obedience. Also, the goals are different. One might go so far as to say that a manager at a factory who tries to use military style authoritarian leadership is actually being ignorant and undermining the seriousness of military action.
Someone who wants to be a leader needs to know how to identify the different interests that motivate different people (Prentice, 1961). Prentice's definition of leadership is "the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants" (paragraph 3). In the military and in the factory, there are different goals and circumstances, so it is inappropriate to use military leadership in the factors. Likewise, it is inappropriate for a parent to demand unquestioning obedience in a child. When the child asks, "Why," and the parent says, "Because I said so!" it is not very good leadership.
Above, I have taken pieces of information from the article and planted them like flowers so they would grow into a paragraph. This one was special, because it actually became two paragraphs. Just keep reading introductions to articles and writing sentences about them.
How do you choose the next article to reference? A better question would be, 'How did you decide to write about parenting, the military, being a manager at a factory, and Prentice's definition of leadership? You came into this process without any idea what you would write, but now you are acting like you planned to write about a comparison of military leadership and managerial leadership. You are letting the term paper take form based on the articles you find interesting.
So how about searching your school library database for these terms:
comparison, military, leadership, managers
You might just find an article that is all about the same concepts you found in the Prentice article! I searched for these terms and found another article: "Why the Military Produces Great Leaders" (Kolditz, 2009). I'm excited because, coincidentally, both the Prentice article and the Kolditz article are both from The Harvard Business Review. I'll be able to compare the concepts from these two articles, and the fact that they are both from the same professional journal will help me create the illusion that I put a lot of time and thought into this term paper.
Reading just the first three paragraphs of the Kolditz article and comparing their message to that of the Prentice article, and I am able to write these two paragraphs below.
Almost four decades after Prentice published that famous article about leadership in The Harvard Business Review, a blog associated with the same journal published another article about leadership that expresses the opposite idea; Kolditz (2009) argues that the military is especially good at producing leaders who would do well as managers. Each of his arguments seems flaws when considered in light of the message by Prentice:
- Kolditz cites the fact that military training is more time-consuming and expensive than managerial training in the private sector.
- Kolditz points out that the military gives high levels of responsibility even to people at low levels of the organization.
- Kolditz argues that the military oath to sacrifice one's own needs for the achievement of organizational goals.
These examples do not demonstrate that the military produces people who would be great organizational leaders in the private sector. The training is more expensive and time consuming, the levels of responsibility are higher, and the need for self-sacrifice all are related to the extreme situations that come from war. Prentice (1961) correctly points out that the circumstances in the private sector are different from circumstances of war.
All the material above can be added to the material about the Prentice article. We have only looked at two articles and begun to compare them, but we already have written more than 400 words of a term paper.
All you need to do is decide what direction to go with your paper. We chose the second article based on the themes we pulled out from the first article. You can find another article about military leadership compared with other kinds of leadership. There is no need to look for a specific kind of article. Just search for your keywords and browse for an interesting article.
Allow the Term Paper to Be About Whatever It Wants to Be About
Stay flexible with your topic. Every time you skim the introduction of another article, type some sentences and let the kaleidoscope turn:
*** If you stumble upon an article about another kind of leadership, such as political leadership, maybe you will decide to make this a term paper that compares three types of leadership: military, private sector, and political.
*** If you stumble upon an article about "transformational leadership" or "servant leadership" you might decide to make this a term paper about comparing Prentice's message with Kolditz's message while using one of these types of leadership as a basis for comparison.
Use this "from the ground up" method, and you will take an interesting idea from each article and make it a Paragraph Topic Sentence in your term paper. Add more sentences to explain, give examples, give quotations, etc., so that each interesting idea becomes a paragraph in your term paper.
You'll get through it quickly. A paper with 2,000 words only requires about 20 paragraphs if you use 4-6 sentences per paragraph. Read enough articles to write 17-18 paragraphs, and then add an introduction to the beginning and a conclusion to the end. Let the introduction and conclusion both express one theme or message that has emerged as the main idea of your term paper. Come up with a title for the term paper that will express this idea, and you are finished. It's a perfect term paper written "from the ground up."