Users of Lynx and disabled readers can jump directly to page content with this link.

Main Essay Page


Printable Version



My home page


  1. Research
  2. Proposal
  3. Compiling Notes
  4. Planning the Essay
  5. Writing
  6. Finishing
  7. Extras
  8. Examples

How to Write an Essay

Part 1 - Research

"When you take stuff from one writer it's plagiarism; but when you take it from many writers, it's research."
-- Wilson Mizner (1876-1933)


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:

  • If you find an endless supply of possible sources right away, your topic is too broad, and you'll have to dig down into the subject more deeply to find a more suitable focus.
  • If you can't find any possible sources after a serious search, your topic may be too narrow or too new. While this could serve as an excellent topic for a thesis in that it provides opportunity for original study, it is probably going to be inappropriate for an early-university or high school essay.
  • The Internet is a fabulous source of knowledge. It is also a fabulous source of utter nonsense. If all of your sources are Internet-based and you can't find any book sources, you have to seriously consider the validity of the subject matter for a university essay. Even cutting-edge technology has books and articles available that describe the basics of the technology.
  • If all of the sources seem to be written by the same person or group of people, you must again seriously consider the validity of the topic. It might be too narrow, or it might be generated by 'crackpots,' or it might be a great topic that has not been written about often enough. Discuss the topic with your teacher/professor.
  • If you find a good source, search again under the author's name in case they have another useful book that you didn't find in the first search.

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):

  • Focus: The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching
    • Good sources:
      • Joe Smith: His Life and Times, by Sally Superwriter
      • Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus
      • Article in Widgets Monthly: Joe Smith, Portrait of a Widget Watcher, by Jean Doorknocker
    • Possible Sources:
      • Widget Watchers in History, by Frank Diddledum (may or may not contain anything about Joe Smith)
      • Joe Smith's Studies in Moose Physiology, by Noreen Numpkin (may or may not contain anything about widget watching, but since the essay is also on his life, there might be good information here)
    • Bad Sources:
      • Great Widget Watchers of the 1950s, by Herbert Hogswatch
      • Prehistoric Widgets by Frank Diddledum
      • Jane Doe: A Widgetress' Life, by Sally Superwriter (unless she had direct influence on Joe Smith, her information is probably irrelevant)
      • Article in Widgets Monthly: How to Spot a Widget at 500m, by Alfredo Frinkenhuven

Notice how the value of the sources change when the focus changes:

  • Focus: Widget watching, what it is, how it has changed, who has contributed to it
    • Good sources:
      • Widget Watchers in History
      • Widget Watching in the Late 1800s
      • Great Widget Watchers of the 1950s
      • Prehistoric Widgets
    • Possible Sources:
      • Joe Smith: His Life and Times (only as it applies to widget watching)
      • Article in Widgets Monthly: Joe Smith, Portrait of a widget watcher (only as it applies to Widget Watching)
      • Jane Doe: A Widgetress' Life (only as it applies to widget watching)
      • Article in Widgets Monthly: How to Spot a Widget at 500m (depending on the content)
    • Bad Sources:
      • Joe Smith's Studies in Moose Physiology

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:

  • New York Widget Watchers (and you know that Smith was from New York), pages 26-29, 49
  • Smith, Joe, pages 4, 26-29, 37, 49, 92-105
  • Widgetiscope (which you know Smith invented), pages 16, 93-94, 138

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

  • the widgetiscope was invented in 1891 in New York, page 16
  • "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope." page 93
  • Phineas Goofius tried to claim he invented the widgetiscope, but Smith proved him a liar, page 94
  • the widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget, page 138

...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.

Next Lesson: Writing a Proposal or Compiling Notes

Last updated in February 2005.

Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.

This original work is available for distribution, provided the following: it is only distributed in this complete form, it contains my name and copyright, it is not altered during distribution without my consent, and it is not used to generate income for anyone without my consent. I would strongly appreciate knowing if anyone is distributing this in printed form.

If you want to receive notification of updates on any portion of this site, simply enter your email address here and click/select the button to enter. You will be required to sign up for a free Yahoo! account to complete registration. Please note that Yahoo!'s privacy policy and other management are outside of's responsibility. Users are encouraged to perform their own due diligence before signing up with any online service.

To find out more about the list or read messages without signing up, please visit the Yahoo! page for the kimberlychapman updates mailing list.

Subscribe to kimberlychapman

Powered by

A-Prompt A[d] Best viewed with ANY browser[d] Valid HTML 4.01![d] Valid CSS![d] Level A conformance icon, W3C-WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0[d]
Labelled with ICRA[d] SafeSurf Rated[d] Made with Notepad[d] This 
Site Is Green[d]

For more information on what these tags mean, please see About