Have a look at your syllabus, or your assignment directions. If you need something explained, don't be afraid to ask your instructor. They want you to succeed.
Pick a topic that will be of interest for you (something that you actually want to know the answer to), because you're going to be studying that topic for the next while as you write this paper.
Try developing a timeline to keep you on track. (ALC sample timeline)
Concept mapping is a simple way of getting your ideas organized, and seeing how they link to each other before you write your paper. Check out this ALC Sample Mind Map.
A good thesis statement clarifies the goals and purpose of an academic paper. Use it to present your argument, or opinion, and your reasons for writing the essay. Devise a strong thesis statement early on to ease the writing process by providing yourself with a clear objective. In the process of researching and writing, you will likely revise your statement as you learn more about the subject, but you'll do that in an informed way.
Try framing your topic as a question to help you describe what it is you want to argue. Ask yourself questions like: why is this interesting, what do I want to learn or show, how can I explain the problem, and who does the issue affect or who causes the issue. Questions like these also come in very useful once you start searching for books and articles in support of your argument.
The Academic Learning Centre provides excellent guides and advice in their Handouts section, including guides for crafting a thesis statement.
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