A Note on Term Papers and Other Writing Assignments

prepared for Geography 366

College writing assignments are supposed to help you to accomplish several things. The most obvious accomplishment is learning about the topic. The less obvious (and more important) accomplishment is practice in collecting, assessing, organizing, analyzing, and presenting information; all with academic rigor. It is this practice that builds the skills that are the the hallmark of a college education: the abilities to pose questions, formulate strategies for answering them, gather relevant information and observations, analyze the assembled evidence, formulate your conclusions, and present them clearly.

This note is to remind you of the standards of academic writing that I expect in this class. You are at university and your writing should reflect that fact.

Content of Papers

The content of papers should address the assigned or nominated topic. It should generally focus on your observations and the conclusions you draw from them. Hopefully these will be in the inter-subjective realm of things that others could also observe. Given that this course is: "The Geography of Honolulu", the topic should be about some aspect of Honolulu, worked out in conference with me (as via proposal and feedback).

What would make it geography? Some hallmarks might be: (1) Asking questions like: where? why there? what's associated with it? where else? (2) Making comparisons among places. (3) Characterizing connections or relationships between places. Perhaps the most decisive test is: Can it be mapped? If you can summarize the paper in a map, you can be pretty confident that it is 'Geography'.

Write about what you observe and think about the various aspects of the city. Ground your opinions in fact and observation. Avoid emotional reactions, vague generalities, unsupported assertions, random conjecture, and willful ignorance. Exposing those kinds of fuzzy thinking in others' writings may be a great way to frame a term paper.

Keep your writing focused on the topic. That most likely excludes writing about your feelings, or the difficulties you had in making time to get the library, or the like --- they may be parts of life, and even of the process of writing your paper, but they probably are off the topic.

Include maps, tables, photographs, and figures to help make your presentation. They can more succinctly replace verbose and dreary writing that would serve only to list facts. Use a map, a table, a photograph, or a figure to present the details clearly, and then in your text highlight those points that are important to your presentation. Don't assume that the reader will spot the important parts; call their attention to them in your text.

A term paper is the summary product of a semester-long exploration of a topic. It should reflect that depth by indicating a wide range of sources that have been consulted and integrated, a close and careful reading of those sources, and integration with your own on-the-ground observations. It should be a well finished product, representing careful, thoughtful re-writing, editing, and revision.

Some kapu topics are listed here.


A proposal should be brief and should make clear what your paper is going to be about ("the question"), why it is interesting / important, what the state of thinking on it is, how you will approach it, and what you expect to find.

Geography often falls-back to its descriptive roots, but we may still want (especially in academic writing) to aspire to clear and efficient thinking, perhaps as Platt (1964) suggested in his paper, "Strong Inference". Term paper season is a great time to practice the habit of asking: What observation could disprove this theory? or What theory would this observation disprove? A little thinking can save a lot of effort on the way to enlightenment, and a deft observation can make for an intellectually compelling and useful paper.

A generic proposal (and ultimately the termpaper) outline looks like this:

 -descriptive accurate title
 -author's name and class inforamtion
 -clear statement of the topic
 -background  (what others think/know/say)
 -what remains to be learned next (the question)
 -how you will answer the question or address the topic 
  or learn what needs to be learned (the approach)
 -sites, resources, tools and techniques you will use 
Expected Results (this becomes Results in the proposal)
 -show how you would interpret the various potential, 
  anticipated outcomes of your observations as evidence for 
  answering the question
Conclusions (Possible Conclusions in the proposal)
 -what you (might be able to) conclude from your observations
 -the list of references that you found / used
 -interviews (annonymous person,  personal interview 10 Oct 2007)

Writing Guidelines

There are many good guides to writing term papers that are well crafted and polished (botht he guides and the papers). College level writers should have one or more writing guides ready at hand, to settle specific points and to browse for general improvement when there is nothing more productive to do. One of the most popular is often referred to simply as "Turabian" (see the full informaiton in the reference list below) and is available in numerous editions and printings. Others include "Strunk and White", and The Chicago Manual of Style Used copies of these are inexpensive and just as good as new ones. It really is a good idea to get one or more and browse in them from time to time.

Stylistically, concrete, direct writing is best. Avoid the first-person voice in academic writing (unless you really are the topic).

Avoid deadwood and convoluted word tangles. Anytime you can make you point better with fewer words, do it. One trick for checking for them is to read the paper aloud to yourself, a recorder, or to someone else. Or have someone else (or your wordprocessor) read it aloud to you. Does it sound right? Are there parts that could be made clearer? Fix them.

The 'web' is interesting for quickly accessing information but it is generally not an adequate citation. If you use 'web stuff', include complete URL citations and be very careful to "consider the source" ---assess who is writing for what audience.

Other things to consider. Number the pages of the manuscript. Double space the text.

Observe the distinction between countable and measureable things when qualifying or comparing quantitites. Less imagination and fewer dogs.

Spell check.

Term Paper Grading Criteria

I will be looking for content, reasoning, organization, structure, mechanics (spelling, grammar, citation), and adherence to our academic/scholastic goals of truthful, clear, original communication. I hope to see your insights on the topic.

Citations and Plagiarism

Give credit where it is due. Use references in the text in in-line citation style, i.e. (author year, page) parenthetical format, If you have a preference for footnote rather than endnote style citations, use them instead. Either way, include a bibliography or reference list at the end of paper.

Extensive quotations should be set off as block quotes, so that it is clear what they are.

note bene: If I find plagiarism, including "cut and paste" copying from the web and the closely related "extended close paraphrase" (a.k.a. "copy and dither"), you will get no points for the assignment, and probably will fail the course. Really.

Human Subjects Concerns

Geographic research often involves gathering observations of and information about people. People have rights (such as to privacy, to know what you are doing with them and information about them, and to give or withhold their consent to have research done on them before you do it) and you have a responsibility to ensure the protection of their rights.

Much of this can be accomplished by applying common sense and the Golden Rule, but a number of incidents in the past have indicated that common sense is not as common as the name implies. To help researchers better understand accepted standards for behavior, the National Institutes of Health, and other groups, have built on-line training resources which will give you a clearer idea of what your duties and responsibilities as a researcher entail. See: here.


Platt, John R. 1964. "Stong Inference". Science 16 October 1964, v146, pp 347-353.

Shertzer, Margaret. 1986. The Elements of Grammar. Macmillian Publishing. New York.

Strunk, William, Jr. and White, E.B. The Elements of Style (3rd ed.). Macmillian Publishing. New York.

Turabian, Kate L. 1967. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. (Third Edition, Revised.) University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL. [That's the one on my shelf. Yours may be a newer, or even an older edition. They are all good.]

University of Chicago Press. 2010. The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL.

UHM Office of Student Affairs. 1992. Student Conduct Code. University of Hawaii at Manoa.

-Matt McGranaghan December 2012