How to Write a Topical Paper

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Not everyone can be a scholar, but that does not mean everyone cannot sound like one. By conducting research on a topic and thinking critically about your findings, you gain an expertise in a field that will show in your paper. The value of knowing how to research, analyze, evaluate and express an informed opinion coherently on a topic extends beyond the classroom and into daily life. Knowing how to write a topical paper trains people how to stop and think critically about the onslaught of information and opinions they encounter on a daily basis.

1 Prewriting

2 Choose a topic

Choose a topic. Sometimes, topics will be provided by the instructor; other times, you must pick your own. If you pick a topic, have it approved by the instructor ahead of time. Reading a textbook and asking questions are good ways to come up with topic ideas; good questions make good papers. Be sure your topic is not too general that your paper will lack focus nor too general that there is nothing to argue. For example: "Richard Nixon" is too broad; "Richard Nixon's Resignation Speech" is too specific. "Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate" has a concrete idea, yet it leaves room for exploration.

3 Consult reference works

Consult reference works online and in print to get a general idea of your topic. Checking encyclopedias and other reference works on your topic is a good way to get a general idea of what information is available about your topic and to find out if it interests you.

4 And take detailed notes

Research and take detailed notes on primary sources, or sources produced by your topic and pertaining to your topic. For Nixon and Watergate, you could read Nixon's memoirs, listen to the Watergate tapes or read "All the President's Men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

5 Read secondary sources

Read secondary sources or those written by outsiders about your topic. Take notes on the content and quality of their arguments in light of having read the primary sources for yourself.

6 Review your notes

Review your notes. Look for common themes that can be used to organize your paper.

7 Organize this information into an outline

Organize this information into an outline. Typically, a topical paper will have an introductory paragraph ending with the thesis, three support paragraphs, and a conclusion restating the thesis in different words. For the support paragraphs. choose the three most important topics from your notes and make them paragraph headings; then, arrange the remaining information into subheadings within those paragraphs. For the Watergate paper, paragraphs could be one on Nixon's statements on his role in the break-in and one on Nixon's reported involvement; the third paragraph could draw conclusions based on an analysis of the first two paragraphs.

8 Writing

9 Write a first draft

Write a first draft fleshing out your outline. The main focus should be writing a solid, concise introduction and conclusion paragraphs that frame your argument and build your argument around your thesis. Strong arguments can be built by presenting a quote from a primary source, a comment on it from a secondary source, then presenting your own analysis of its relevance. For the Watergate paper, a good introduction might discuss how the Presidency was viewed in the public eye before the scandal and the conclusion how Watergate changed that perception.

10 Revise your first draft

Revise your first draft by deleting excess information and tightening your argument around your topic. Unless otherwise noted, your final paper should be around five pages; so, do not hesitate to discard information.

11 Finish your paper

Finish your paper by adding proper headings according to your instructor's directions and a Works Cited page at the end. Your Works Cited page should be an alphabetical list of sources used in the format preferred by your instructor.

Derek M. Kwait has a Bachelor of Arts in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh and has been writing for most of his life in various capacities. He has worked as a staff writer and videographer for the "Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh" and also has training writing fiction, nonfiction, stage-plays and screenplays.