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Thinking Critically
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Textbook Site for:
Social Psychology , Sixth Edition
Sharon S. Brehm - Indiana University
Saul Kassin - Williams College
Steven Fein - Williams College


Part of most students' college careers will involve writing term papers. Although these types of assignments can initially be very intimidating, they almost always are valuable learning experiences for students who give the assignment the time and attention it deserves. And for any one who is tempted to believe that writing term papers is an arcane exercise--think again. Many top employers cite writing skills as a "must-have" in a potential employee. The same skills that make you a good term paper writer will make you attractive to an employer, so developing those skills is an important goal to adopt during your college years.

Because developing your writing skills is so important to your future career options, I have included a section in each chapter of this study guide entitled "What Should I Write About?" to assist you in this process. The title of the section suggests that it will focus on how to decide on a term paper topic--and that is true. But as you progress through the textbook and study guide, you will see that this section's focus grows to address general problems that students tend to encounter as they develop and organize the topic they have selected.

Selecting an appropriate term paper topic is the initial hurdle to overcome in writing a term paper. Students tend to encounter several pitfalls as they choose an initial topic, and the sections on writing in the earlier chapters of this study guide will address those problems. Those sections will provide helpful tips on how to choose a topic that is neither too broad, nor too narrow, and how to look for clues that a topic will be interesting to you. If you are going to invest the time in writing a term paper, you want to be sure that the topic is interesting enough to keep you motivated. Once you have identified the topic, though, there are other hurdles to overcome.

Developing the term paper topic is the next hurdle. The writing sections embedded in the chapters toward the middle of this study guide will focus on how to develop your term paper topic. These sections will include hints on how to do research that will yield valuable information that will elaborate on your topic. In addition, I share strategies that have been successful for other writers in developing their topics. Although you wouldn't want to use all of the strategies in a single paper, you might try a sampling of these strategies and determine which one works best for you. This section should give you an idea of how to proceed so that you don't get the awful "writer's block" after you first identify your topic. Once you have developed the topic though, it is time to think about how to organize the information into a coherent whole.

The writing sections in the chapters toward the end of this study guide focus on organizing information. Several strategies are suggested--pro/con papers, papers with different views of the same issue presented, analysis of different views, and so on. Again, it would probably not be in your best interest to use all of these strategies in a single paper. The result would be likely to be more disorganized than if you had used no particular strategy. However, it probably is worth your while to try several of these strategies, and then decide which one works best for the topic you have selected.

As you try the various writing strategies suggested throughout the "What Should I Write About?" sections, you will hopefully begin to identify what strategies work best for you. That is a big step towards honing your writing skills. But you also need to pay attention to where you work best, and at what time of day you do your best work. Writing is a challenging process for even the best of writers. Don't assume that you will be able to produce great work no matter what the working conditions are. You need to actively identify and seek out the times and conditions that you know you are likely to be able to concentrate and think clearly about an issue. If you skip this step, no matter what strategy you use, you will probably not be performing at your peak.

Finally, don't forget that writing is like any skill--it gets better with practice. Practice means taking time to work on improving your skills. It means identifying areas where you know you are weak, and seeking out ways to improve in those arenas. It means doing something over and over and trying to improve each time that you repeat the act. Writing a term paper doesn't mean you will sit down and hammer out a perfect draft the first time. Good writers are more likely to sit down and hammer out something, and then focus on improving that something into something great. It can be discouraging at first, but if you practice your writing, seek feedback on it, and work to incorporate that feedback to improve each draft of a paper, you will find that you become a better and better writer. In fact, you'll probably find that the next time you have to write a term paper, that your first draft on it is light years ahead of the first draft you wrote on the previous paper. At that point you have an opportunity to reach even higher.

Continuously improving your writing skills is time-consuming and effortful. But it is worth it. It is worth it both in terms of the marketability this skill will afford you upon graduation, and in terms of personal development. Being able to articulate your thoughts, and the thoughts you have discovered through research, on an issue through writing will provide you with self-confidence. I hope that using the strategies suggesting in this Study Guide will prove helpful to you in this endeavor.