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  • Writer's pictureADHD low-down

It’s Term Paper Time, Kids - #ADHD

A step-by-step approach to creating your masterpiece.


To any student with ADHD, term paper is a daunting challenge. A dull topic, an avalanche of material, and a fuzzy focus can shut our minds down.

But when the subject is interesting and well-defined, our gifts of creativity, enthusiasm, and hyperfocus spring to the fore. Your teachers will appreciate those gifts — they’ve read dozens of papers about the same thing, written in the same, uninspired way. Use your ADHD talents to your advantage, and you’ll stand above the crowd.

Step 1. Find a topic that grabs you — and that you can grab onto

An intriguing topic will make research and writing more enjoyable, and your positive energy and effort will be apparent in your work. But proceed with care: A subject that initially seems like the perfect choice can prove impossible to write about.

The key to choosing a topic is to judge its scope accurately. Let’s say the general theme for your paper is Saharan wildlife. Choose too broad a topic, such as “Animals of the Sahara,” and you’ll need another two years of college to finish it. Pick one that’s too narrow, like “Desert Hyenas with ADHD,” and you might not find anything at all. Resist your ADHD instinct to pick a highly obscure or difficult topic. If you hear that “no one’s written on that before,” there may be a good reason why. Go with something that’s not too broad or too narrow, perhaps “The Top Three Reasons Animals Prefer Spring Break in the Sahara.”

Notice how the right title does double duty, drawing in your audience and focusing your efforts. The words “Top Three Reasons” in the title are a reminder that you’ll need to present three main points.

Step 2. Take command of the material

After choosing a topic, we often freeze up. How to begin such a massive job? Don’t worry about formal research at first. Take some time to skim books and surf the Web, looking for ideas, making connections, and letting it all percolate. Set a time limit — say, three hours. Unstructured searching can provide inspiration, but it can also lead you far afield.

Next, visit your school or local library, in person or online. Need a book profiling vultures that own timeshares in the Sahara? If you start your research early enough, the library can order hard-to-find books, audiocassettes, professional journals, and other materials. Many colleges also have Web sites and specialized search engines to guide you through the research process, such as, run by the Colorado State University Libraries.

In choosing your paper’s main points, use the three-to-five rule. Develop three to five subtopics, and find three to five supporting arguments for each. If possible, research one subtopic at a time. If you’re proposing that camels choose the Sahara because it’s a swinging vacation spot, search for studies, quotations from experts, and brochures from camel travel agencies to prove the point.

When you find relevant information, color-code and flag it, using a different color for each main point. Use sticky notes to mark material in books and magazines. If the information is on the Internet, cut and paste it into a document, or use Excel to arrange the material in column form, using colored fonts or highlighting. Color-coded index cards are another good way to organize information.

As you collect material, resist the classic ADHD instinct to do the easy work now and save the citations for later. Always write down the source-it’s a nightmare to track it down at a later date. If your professor requires a particular reference style, cite sources in your notes just as you would in your footnotes or references. It will save you from having to look things up twice.

Step 3. Make an outline

Even with the major points organized by color, outlining a term paper can be hard. It requires us to organize and prioritize — difficult skills for students with ADHD. Talking the paper over with someone, or even thinking out loud to yourself, sometimes helps the pieces fall into place.

Another strategy is to use your dominant learning style. If you’re a visual learner, draw pictures to represent each main point and each secondary point, and move them around on a table to see which order makes sense. (You can do the same with your note-filled index cards.) If you think best by feeling things (kinesthetic learning), make a model with clay or use the pieces of a board game to represent each of your ideas. Auditory learners can dictate ideas into a digital recorder, download the data into a computer, and move ideas around as needed.

If you continue to have problems with organization, consult your professor and share what you’ve done so far. He can provide direction and insight.

Step 4. Ready, set, write

If your outline is orderly and comprehensive, you’ll just have to fill in the blanks. Don’t worry yet about whether your writing is graceful or grammatically correct — just let the ink flow.

Your introductory paragraph should include a thesis statement. This is a sentence that offers a reason for the paper and sets up a road map for the reader. Include transitions as you move from one paragraph to the next, and cite your references as you go along.

Step 5. Get me rewrite!

Rewriting is one of the biggest challenges for students with ADHD. We usually wait until the last minute to write a paper, leaving little time for revision. But our first effort is never our best, and the difference between a first and second draft can be a full grade or more.

The trick is to build rewriting into your schedule. If you lack the discipline to start writing early, set up a meeting with your teacher to discuss the paper. This will force you to complete a first draft, and provide an opportunity for feedback.

Once the draft is written, step away from the paper. Reward yourself with a night out with friends. Time away is refreshing, and it invites new ideas and insights. Keep a recorder or notepad handy to capture new ideas.

In your second draft, concentrate on both content and details. Your paper should be Clear, Concise, and Clean. Read it aloud and ask yourself:

  • Clear: Are my points understandable? Do all of my examples make sense?

  • Concise: Am I wordy or repetitive? What can I cut out?

  • Clean: Are there grammar or spelling errors, or typos to clean up? Are the margins, line spacing, font, and page length correct?

Make your changes, and double-check your research notes. Have you missed any important points? Have you referenced all materials? Now recruit a second pair of eyes — a tutor, professor, librarian, or someone from the college writing center — to go over it. Even the best writers need help critiquing their own work.

If the paper isn’t yet due, put it aside. When you come back to it, give it a final polish, checking once more for errors, formatting, consistency, and clarity. Then turn it in, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.


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