Structure of a Seminar Paper

I feel like there is a lot of stress out there among grad students about writing seminar papers, especially when we’re told that our goal should be to make an original contribution to the field. That idea can be quite intimidating when we’re just starting out. It feels like you’ve asked us to jump off the deep end of the pool and we don’t know how to swim.

I think part of the problem is that we’re still working out how to structure seminar papers.** Each paper we write is another step closer to a successful, effective, and affective paper; however, we’re still flailing our arms (and other miscellaneous body parts) around because we’re uncertain of exactly how to go about it. I realize, of course, that there is no one right answer. However, below is my suggestion at sticking your toes in the water.

**Addition: I have to add that I think Donna has done a whole lot this semester to try and help us see this fact and demistify the process.

I welcome your comments and/or suggestions. Also, if there are any sources you’d like to recommend, please comment away.

Section #1 — Introduction
Provide a little bit (or a lot) of motivation for the reader to read your entire paper. Failing that, your reader should know what the paper is going to be about by reading your introduction.

Paragraph #1 — Get some attention.
1. Provide a context by citing a recent text in the field — the point that is cited may or may not be the main point of the text — it is what jumped out at you.
2. Set-up broader context of what you’re going to do

Paragraph #2-?? — Define issue and the gap.
1. Define issue and any key terms
2. Limit scope as necessary
3. Establish significance of issue
4. State problem by defining the gap
5. Explain how present research attempts to fill the gap
6. Outline contributions (readers will see lit review for more detail.)
7. End with thesis and preview organization of the rest of the paper

Section #2 — Literature Review
Give some credit where credit is due.
1. Indicate the current state of the issue/problem/topic
2. Define or qualify terms
3. Engage sources in conversation with each other (don’t just copy in annotated bib)

Section #3 — Argument/Discussion
As stated in the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing: wallow in those complexities!!
1. Examine issue
2. Argue how issue can be mitigated, mediated, or mashed
3. Provide evidence and support
4. Make some lively commentary along the way

Section #4 — Conclusion
We’re almost done. Don’t quit now.
1. Summarize research question
2. Qualify argument/discussion if you need to
3. Explain where we go now
4. End well

Section #5 — Works Cited
1. Double check — Is everything listed on the works cited?

Tips: it’s ok to use sub-headings to keep yourself organized.

11 thoughts on “Structure of a Seminar Paper

  1. marcia Post author

    I have hope that some day this seminar paper writing stuff will all seem really easy and it will just be the actual writing that takes the time. Whereas now, I feel like I psyche myself out a lot of the time. I have got to quit doing that.

    Donna also mentioned in class on Monday night that many of our papers may not need a lit review section because there might not be much, if anything, published on our topics.

    I do take some comfort that many of the other people that I talk to about this seems to struggle with it too.

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  3. cathy

    Thanks for such a dtailed description of what to do. Ihave been a loggerheads prepping for a seminar paper and presentation. Please send word on whether this detail source is also in line with English literature papers as well? I am aware that when it comes to thesis proposals for instance we do things slightly different and much more uncomplicated.

  4. marcia Post author

    Cathy, I’m glad you found it helpful. I don’t know if this would work for your lit papers as well, as my lit profs have asked me to position my argument historically or do a close reading which didn’t need any outside sources. Your best bet would be to ask your prof what he or she expects, or to talk about your own interests and ask them for suggestions on how you could approach the assignment. One prof even let me take a pedagogical approach to a text, which surprised me.

  5. jax

    thank you very much for helping an “older” student with a looming deadline.
    Your succinct outline of a seminar paper was just what i needed.

    once again


  6. glory marco

    Nice one.
    But honestly there’s something I really want to understand, why didn’t you include abstract, background of the topic, statement of the problem, methodology of the topic? Or is it that this ones are actually done in project.. I really want to know thanks

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