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How to Write an Essay
Part 1 - Research
There are those who say that before you can research or write, you must first choose a focus and stick to it. While that is good advice in some cases, there are times when your focus should change during the research process. For example, you might decide to write on a topic only to discover a more interesting, more relevant, or more easily researched topic while trying to find materials on the original topic. For this reason, you should not submit a proposal for an essay (if required) or otherwise make your focus concrete until you've done some preliminary research. That doesn't mean reading every book on the subject; rather, you should ascertain what sort of materials are available on the subject at all. When you do your basic search, keep in mind the following indications:
Assuming you don't have any of the above problems in your preliminary research, you should now be ready to choose a focus for your essay. In your notes, come up with a brief focus statement to help guide yourself. This doesn't have to be grammatically perfect, and if you wish, it can be in the form of a question. The point is to give yourself a guide by which to judge research as you find it. For example, here is a fake topic (don't fret about what widget watching is, I just made it up):
Notice how the value of the sources change when the focus changes:
Notice that because the topic broadened to cover all of widget watching, the number of good sources increased.
During your research, you may discover all kinds of interesting facts about related topics. In the example above, you might have learned that Jane Doe was desperately but secretly in love with Joe Smith. But unless that love directly affected the field of widget watching, the information is irrelevant to the second focus. It is only relevant to the first focus if it affected Joe Smith; so if he didn't know about it, it probably isn't relevant. You must stick to your focus in your writing, and avoid throwing in random factoids, regardless of how interesting they may seem. Otherwise, the essay becomes too long and disjointed. It can be frustrating to not use what seems to be a good bit of information, but unless you can work it into your focus well, you'll have to learn to set such things aside.
Of course, if a bit of interesting information fits the focus, by all means work it into the essay!
The Nitty-Gritty of Research
Now that you have your focus and have selected a good set of sources, it's time to read and make notes. I'd recommend using paper with a margin, for reasons that will become apparent in Part 3. For the rest of these tips and instructions, let's assume that our focus is the first example, "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching."
Some sources will only have selected paragraphs, pages, or chapters that fit the focus, so manage your time by reading the relevant information first. If your personal interest in the topic drives you to read more later, that's great, but getting your essay finished on time is important. With general books, such as Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, go through the chapter listing if there is one, and/or the index if there is one. Look for key items related to Joe Smith, such as his name or other elements. For example, Widget Watching of the Late 1800s has no chapter on Joe Smith, but it does list the following in the index:
You should check each listed page for Joe Smith in case it has useful information, but you can make an educated guess that anything with multiple pages (26-29 and 92-105) will probably have more than just mention of his name. Also, by cross-referencing to other elements you know involve your focus, you can find information that you might have otherwise missed, as in the extra pages on the widgetiscope. Chances are, Smith's widgetiscope had an impact on widget watching, so information on it might fit your focus even if it doesn't mention Smith's name each and every time.
As you read through the sources and find useful information, write it down (or type it, if you're using a computer) in your notes as completely as possible. For every note that you write from a source, remember to include where you found the information so you can cite it properly later. It's incredibly frustrating to be halfway through writing an essay and want to use a quotation you've noted but you can't because you didn't write down where you got the quotation from. You either have to flip through all the sources looking for it, or you can't use it because you'd be plagiarising if you used it without attribution.
A good way to make life easier for keeping track of which note is from what source is to keep a separate sheet (or set of sheets) or computer document for each source, and write out the full bibliographic information at the top of the sheet or source. Then just include the page number beside each note. Also, be sure to put quotation marks around things you've quoted directly to make sure you don't confuse them with your own paraphrasings later. For example:
Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968
...and so forth down the page...
You may find that some sources disagree with what other sources said. This does not invalidate a source. As you will see in Part 7, you can make your essay even stronger by playing sources off of one another. You should make your notes as complete as possible, noting anything that could be of use in the writing. It's much easier to scrap useless bits later than to sit down to write and find out you're short on information or missing key details.
Keep in mind that any source can be biased or otherwise flawed. Any book, magazine, newspaper, or website may be produced by a person or organization with a distinct bent on things. If you are writing an essay on the U.S. Civil War and all of your sources are staunch Confederates, your essay will have a significant bias. If your essay focuses on parapsychology and all of your sources are tabloid newspapers, you're probably missing some important scientific writings both for and against the topic. It's okay to use a biased source, so long as you recognize that it is biased and counteract it with an opposing or neutral source. If you have good reason to suspect bias, be sure to present that as part of your analysis of what the source has to say.
While you're researching and making notes, if a brilliant way to present something in your essay occurs to you, write it down. For example, you may suddenly think of a wonderful opening or closing sentence, or a great way to phrase a particular element. Put it down in the notes immediately before you forget it. You can always choose not to use it later.
Once you've done your research, you're ready to compile the notes in such a way that will make it easier to eventually do the writing. If you have to write a proposal and haven't already done so, do that now.
Last updated in February 2005.
Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.
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