5 Tips on Writing a Theory Paper

Several readers have asked me about providing a step-by-step on writing a theory paper. As every instructor has different criteria, that is a hard thing to do! But I think I can give some guidelines that I would give my students, that may be helpful for your theory paper assignments. Oh, I’m going to say theory paper throughout for simplicity, but these steps will work with conceptual models/frameworks, too. 

person typing on computer, notepad nearby

Most Important Tip!  FOLLOW YOUR INSTRUCTOR’S DIRECTIONS!

So many students lose points on assignments because they don’t follow the directions. They may forget to discuss a critical element the instructor wants covered, or they don’t realize they need to compare and contrast two theories, or they go over the number of pages allowed, etc. How can you prevent these mistakes from happening to you? Refer to specific guidelines from your instructor!

Who is grading your paper? Your instructor! Do what they tell you to do! Almost nothing ticks me off more than to spend hours on crafting an assignment, giving examples for clarity, spelling out the critical elements, and then have students not follow the directions!  So don’t waste the instructor’s time or yours! 

I suggest that you print a copy of the directions and have it next to you as you write your paper.  Check off each element as you complete it if that will help.  Remember that even if an Instructor has required a certain style guide for you to follow (e.g., APA, AMA), they may modify assignments to meet the learning objectives and/or their personal style of teaching, including modifying the style format. For example, they may want references single-spaced with a double-space inbetween instead of what the style guide tells you (e.g., in APA references would be double-spaced). So if in doubt about how to format or to writing style modifications, etc., ASK!

Read the Directions Through Once and Then Again – Before You Start!

Before you start the paper, read the directions through once thoroughly. Then read them again – make notes, star items, highlight, whatever helps you to remember to include salient points.  

If the instructor gives you a page limit for the entire paper or per section – pay attention! I make it clear in the directions and my rubric that I will take points off the total if the page limit goes beyond the maximum number of pages I’ve set for an assignment. Believe it or not, this is helpful to you because it helps you learn how to be concise – to get your point across without wasting time or pages on filler material. You won’t get a better grade if your paper is longer than someone else’s. Your grade should be based on how well you meet the critical elements

Writing down major points from the directions will help you when you are doing your research for the paper. This exercise should help direct your search for relevant articles. 

Write an Outline for Your Theory Paper – Before You Start!

Take a piece of paper and write an outline of your paper as you go through the requirements.  Most instructors will write the directions in the order they want to see the paper written – you don’t have to guess! The flow of the directions should guide the flow of your paper! 

By the Way: The act of writing – handwriting – has been shown to help the brain process information more effectively and store that information for later use (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Because you can’t write in longhand as fast as you can type, handwriting forces the student to make choices in what they are writing down — so you typically summarize the ideas and write down concepts instead of entire verbatim sentences. Handwriting affects cognitive brain processing, which makes one much more likely to remember what they wrote. 

Use the Grading Rubric to Your Advantage

If your instructor provides you with a grading rubric, print it! Again, put it next to your computer and refer back to it as you write the paper. If you don’t have a grading rubric then just refer to the theory paper directions. 

The grading rubric does several things.  First, it reminds you of all the critical elements that should be included in your paper. So if you somehow didn’t catch an important point, you will see it on the rubric. 

Second, it provides a structure for your outline – the rubric should mesh with your assignment directions. 

Third, it shows you what parts of the paper the instructor thinks is most important! How? Look at the number of points allotted to each element!  The number of points gives you a relative idea of how much time (and number of pages) you should be spending on each section.

For example, let’s say you are writing a paper about a nursing theory that you get to chose. Let’s also have the following point values out of 100 total points: Introduction 5 points, Theory Summary 35 points, Application to Practice 50 points, Grammar and Style 10 points. 

The Introduction is only worth 5 points out of 100, so don’t write 5 pages of introduction! For 5 points, a paragraph or two should be sufficient to introduce your topic and give some supporting evidence as to why you chose it. Oh, and DON’T label this section Introduction! The beginning of the paper is considered the introduction.

The Theory Summary is worth 35 points. You need to spend more time and pages on this element than on the introduction. Pay attention to which subelements the instructor might want in this section.  Does she want you to identify the purpose of the theory? Does he want you to explain how the theorist sees the four nursing metaparadigms? Does he want you to compare your theory with another? etc.

Learn how to paraphrase! (There are plenty of resources on the Internet and you can also download my APA/Plagiarism eGuides to help.) If you just HAVE to quote, then be sure to do that correctly or it will be flagged as plagiarism.  In APA format, the quoted material needs to have quote marks around it and you need to cite the author, year, and page number.  

And be sure to credit the authors of the textbook and/or papers you have read correctly for the ideas you are paraphrasing. 

In this example, the Application to Practice component is worth more than the theory component – 50 points. So this element should take up the majority of your paper and your time. 

In my mind, application is where I can see the student’s thinking and reasoning skills better. Anyone can summarize a theory, but to explain how that theory could be actually used in practice requires a different skill set. So again, how does the instructor want you to apply your chosen theory? Look at the subelements so you don’t forget to address each one required: to clinical practice? to leadership? to education? to research? to management?

When providing explanations of application try to use the “language” of the theorist – without copying phrases word-for-word. This is a challenge, I admit, but when a student does that in my classes, that shows me they are trying hard to understand how to really use the theory. Even if you don’t completely get it right, the effort means a lot – and you will stretch your brain by trying. Look at how I briefly outlined the use of King’s theory in a research study to test one of her propositions in my post on What is a Theoretical Framework or Conceptual Model?

Hint: Search the literature for research and theoretical articles on your theory/theorist and X (fill in real-world application). For example, Watson AND Nursing Education, Roy AND Patient Care, AACN Synergy Model AND Critical Care Practice.  When you get the results, pull some of the relevant articles and see how the authors used theory to guide their curriculum or research study or clinical practice. 

If you read a few of these articles on the same theorist, I will promise you that you will have a better understanding of the theory, in general. And it will open your eyes to real-world application of theory. 

The last section is worth 10 points and is all about grammar, syntax, spelling, and APA format. Ten points can be the difference between a passing grade or not.

Proofread your paper! I’ve found if I read my papers out loud, I can hear the mistakes more easily than if I’m reading silently. Better yet, have someone else read your paper to find areas that are unclear or that don’t flow well. If you have troubles writing, get the same comments about grammar and syntax errors from your instructors, or if English is your second language – please use the campus Writing Center resources (online or face-to-face) to provide editing assistance. You are paying for this service in your fees – so take advantage of their expertise! 

Learn the formatting style your college requires and check your paper for missing quote marks, incorrect citations in text or in the reference page, or weird margins. Does your instructor require a cover page? Did you stay within the page limits?

Be Sure to Interject Your Own Thoughts

Any paper full of quoted and cited material is someone else’s work. If every sentence is cited that tells me you are sharing ideas from the text or literature you read. While the instructor expects you to credit the ideas and words of others, we want to see your own thinking in the theory paper too! Don’t forget to discuss how the theory resonates with your own nursing philosophy, and give personal or professional examples to support your statements. 

Let’s recap the tips:

 

  • Most Important Tip!  FOLLOW YOUR INSTRUCTOR’S DIRECTIONS!
  • Read the Directions Through Once and Then Again – Before You Start!
  • Write an Outline for Your Theory Paper – Before You Start!
  • Use the Grading Rubric to Your Advantage
  • Be Sure to Interject Your Own Thoughts

These general tips should help you in any assignment for school – not just a theory paper! I hope these are helpful to you. Good Luck! 

 

What Do You Think About These Tips for Writing a Theory Paper? Let me know in the comments!

Reference:

Mueller P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168.  DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581  Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956797614524581