Guide to Essay Writing and Research
Four steps of Essay Writing
The purpose of an Essay is to demonstrate the validity of a point of view. This point of view should be derived from the study of a reasonable amount of evidence that is subjected to analysis. Thus, a good paper is the result of a combination of appropriate research, sound judgement, good analysis and clear and coherent writing.
There are four distinct steps to follow in order to write a good paper. These are:
Defining the Problem
- If the subject has not been assigned: The first thing to do is to spend some time to formulate clearly a research topic and question. The greatest problem that students have is that they often define a research topic that is either too broad, or far too narrow for the amount of time and space they have available to write their paper. Ask yourself some key questions:
- Is the issue relevant to your course?
- to the topics studied in class?
- Will there be sufficient documentation available?
- Does the topic lead you to an easy formulation of a research question and, eventually, to a thesis/point of view?
Before you proceed, you will have to meet with me to have your topic approved.
- If the subject has been assigned: Before rushing to the Library, spend some time thinking about the problem/issue you have to write about. Collect your thoughts on this subject:
- Are there aspects that you have studied in class and which could be useful to you?
- What is precisely involved in the question you are asked to deal with?
- Do you have already any ideas about your topic?
- Where do these ideas come from?
- Why did you choose this subject?
- Do you have biases that will prove insurmountable?
- Are there elements of the problem that would require proper definition?
Only after you have answered these questions appropriately can your proceed effectively to the second stage.
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Once you have properly defined your subject you are ready to carry out your research. The first step will be to construct an appropriate bibliography. This aspect is dealt with separately in the Notes on Research; please refer to them.
The purpose of research is to inform you of the range of ideas and opinions, as well as of the facts, that have been raised on your subject, and thus to provide you with a factual base to conduct your argument. It is essentially objective in nature since as many points of view and facts as possible and reasonable must be consulted. Read your sources carefully. Read them twice, if necessary; you must make certain that you have a full understanding of the views and information provided by your authors.
Your first reading should be rapid: carefully consult the Table of Contents, the Index; read the information on the jacket of the book; examine the Introduction and the Conclusion of the book. These provide invaluable clues as to the views and the findings of your source; so do the beginning and the end of each of the chapters. Your first reading is to get a sense of the general thesis of the author and to identify the parts that are more relevant to your subject, and consequently earmarked for more elaborate examination.
Your second reading should be very specific: its purpose is to allow you to extract the fine points of the demonstration and to provide you with concrete factual information and arguments that you will need. Write down this information and views very carefully and register precisely where it was found, not forgetting to note the page where the information was found. Transform the authors ideas into your own words immediately. Work out an adequate note taking system. Consult me if you do not know how to proceed effectively. Do this for all of your sources.
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The information gathered throughout your research must now be submitted to analysis. This is the phase that is most critical; yet, this is where so many students show deficiencies. Too often, students start their paper too late. They cannot do their paper without research, so this part must be done. The paper must be written as well, so this also must be done. The consequence of a late start is usually that the analysis phase is virtually skipped over, with the resulting effects of incoherence, contradiction, superficiality, misrepresentation and scores of other ills. For the most part, the paper of such students becomes a clumsy stringing together of the views of their sources; this rarely achieves coherence, aside from demonstrating a complete lack of originality.
The opinions and the data you have gathered must be submitted to analysis. Among your sources, are there facts and points of view over which there is general agreement? If you have researched broadly, consulted authors from different schools of thought, it is of great interest to examine where they are in full agreement. This can provide you with a solid foundation over which there should not be any major dispute. Be careful; perhaps the unanimity you now encounter is the result of lack of broad research! Are there points of view that can be reconciled? It is amazing how easy this can be sometimes. At times, authors are stubborn about petty questions that a third party can resolve satisfactorily. However well you may note the elements in common or reconcile some points of view, there will remain large areas of disagreement between your sources in the end. This is where you must be very careful. Ask yourself some of the following questions: do all the points argued seem of equal validity? Are there contentions that seem better supported by evidence? Have your authors all made clear their bias? Hiding a bias is often the most insidious of defects in a piece of work. Have all the essential elements of a question been handled appropriately? Are there questions that remain unanswered? Are you able to honestly and objectively summarize the views of each of your authors? Why do you favour a particular point of view by an author? Could it be because you have a clear bias? Remember that we are always quick to see (and condemn) the bias of others but rarely see it in ourselves...
In the process of analysis, you will soon find that facts do not speak for themselves; it is up to you to arrange them in some fashion so that they acquire meaning. Remember that evidence only exists when put against some particular contention. Otherwise, your facts are just an incoherent mass.
The process of defining, researching and analysing will lead you to formulate a thesis. You are now ready to write your paper.
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Writing the Paper:
Never lose sight of the fact that the purpose of your paper is to sustain a given stand and to raise all available arguments (factual or logical) to demonstrate its validity. Remain true to your purpose and do not deviate from your task. Disregard all elements not crucial to the demonstration of your thesis. Not adhering to your purpose is one of the most frequent defects of papers.
Your paper must clearly contain three parts: the introduction, the main body and the conclusion.
- The Introduction: This is the first thing your reader will look at. Spend some time on it. First impressions are difficult to break! Do not put your reader to sleep! Do not go back to the Flood! Do not complicate a simple question! Be clear, concise and to the point. An Introduction serves three purposes
- a) to briefly outline/define your research problem;
- b) to state your thesis clearly (without writing inelegantly my thesis is that...);
- c) a listing/justification of the factors/periods you intend to examine to demonstrate the validity of your thesis.
Given the length of your paper, your introduction should not exceed one page. Aside from lack of proper thesis, the main defect of many Introductions is that arguments are made. This is not the place for it; there is a difference between indicating to your reader the areas you will explore to demonstrate your thesis and making arguments. Your introduction should be shown to me at least one week before the paper must be submitted.
- The Main Body of your Paper: In this part you present all of the arguments to support your thesis and the relevant data to prove its validity. Arrange your arguments logically. Show that you have really organized your material so as to convince the reader. Make sure your arguments flow well, that your paragraphs have unity and that they are well linked together. This is the time to apply the wonderful techniques learned in your English classes! At all times remain coherent and maintain a professional tone. Avoid at all costs excesses of language. Show respect for your authors and be fair in the rendering of their ideas. Be forceful without being obnoxious. Above all, adhere to your purpose and always keep in mind what that purpose is! Follow the plan you have outlined in your Introduction.
- The conclusion: This is the place to briefly recapitulate your findings. No new elements should be introduced. Make sure you do not contradict the main body of the paper or disregard major areas discussed. In your conclusion, you may enlarge the debate if it seems relevant and important! Work on this conclusion! It is your last chance to make your thesis understood...
What is a research paper? A research paper is a piece of academic writing based on its author’s original research on a particular topic, and the analysis and interpretation of the research findings. It can be either a term paper, a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation. This Chapter outlines the logical steps to writing a good research paper. To achieve supreme excellence or perfection in anything you do, you need more than just the knowledge. Like the Olympic athlete aiming for the gold medal, you must have a positive attitude and the belief that you have the ability to achieve it. That is the real start to writing an A+ research paper.
STEP 1. HOW TO START A RESEARCH PAPER? CHOOSE A TOPIC
Choose a topic which interests and challenges you. Your attitude towards the topic may well determine the amount of effort and enthusiasm you put into your research.
Focus on a limited aspect, e.g. narrow it down from “Religion” to “World Religion” to “Buddhism”. Obtain teacher approval for your topic before embarking on a full-scale research. If you are uncertain as to what is expected of you in completing the assignment or project, re-read your assignment sheet carefully or ASK your teacher.
Select a subject you can manage. Avoid subjects that are too technical, learned, or specialized. Avoid topics that have only a very narrow range of source materials.
STEP 2. FIND INFORMATION
Surf the Net.
For general or background information, check out useful URLs, general information online, almanacs or encyclopedias online such as Britannica. Use search engines and other search tools as a starting point.
Pay attention to domain name extensions, e.g., .edu (educational institution), .gov (government), or .org (non-profit organization). These sites represent institutions and tend to be more reliable, but be watchful of possible political bias in some government sites. Be selective of .com (commercial) sites. Many .com sites are excellent; however, a large number of them contain advertisements for products and nothing else. Network Solutions provides a link where you can find out what some of the other extensions stand for. Be wary of the millions of personal home pages on the Net. The quality of these personal homepages vary greatly. Learning how to evaluate websites critically and to search effectively on the Internet can help you eliminate irrelevant sites and waste less of your time.
The recent arrival of a variety of domain name extensions such as .biz (commercial businesses), .pro, .info (info on products / organizations), .name, .ws (WebSite), .cc (Cocos Island) or .sh (St. Helena) or .tv (Tuvalu) may create some confusion as you would not be able to tell whether a .cc or .sh or .tv site is in reality a .com, a .edu, a .gov, a .net, or a .org site. Many of the new extensions have no registration restrictions and are available to anyone who wishes to register a distinct domain name that has not already been taken. For instance, if Books.com is unavailable, you can register as Books.ws or Books.info via a service agent such as Register.com.
To find books in the Library use the OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog).
Check out other print materials available in the Library:
- Almanacs, Atlases, AV Catalogs
- Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
- Government Publications, Guides, Reports
- Magazines, Newspapers
- Vertical Files
- Yellow Pages, Zip or Postal Code and Telephone Directories
Check out online resources, Web based information services, or special resource materials on CDs:
- Online reference materials (including databases, e.g. SIRS, ProQuest, eLibrary, etc.)
- Google Scholar
- Wall Street Executive Library
- Index to Periodicals and Newspapers (e.g. MagPortal.com, OnlineNewspapers.com, etc.)
- Answers.com – an online dictionary and encyclopedia all-in-one resource that you can install on your computer free of charge and find one-click answers quickly.
- Encyclopedias (e.g.Britannica, Canadian Encyclopedia, etc.)
- Magazines and Journals
- International Public Library
- Subject Specific software (e.g. discovering authors, exploring Shakespeare, etc.)
Check out public and university libraries, businesses, government agencies, as well as contact knowledgeable people in your community.
Read and evaluate. Bookmark your favorite Internet sites. Printout, photocopy, and take notes of relevant information.
As you gather your resources, jot down full bibliographical information (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date of publication, page numbers, URLs, creation or modification dates on Web pages, and your date of access) on your work sheet, printout, or enter the information on your laptop or desktop computer for later retrieval. If printing from the Internet, it is wise to set up the browser to print the URL and date of access for every page. Remember that an article without bibliographical information is useless since you cannot cite its source.
STEP 3. MAKE YOUR THESIS STATEMENT
Most research papers normally require a thesis statement. If you are not sure, ask your teacher whether your paper requires it.
A thesis statement is a main idea, a central point of your research paper. The arguments you provide in your paper should be based on this cenral idea, that is why it is so important. Do some critical thinking and write your thesis statement down in one sentence. Your research paper thesis statement is like a declaration of your belief. The main portion of your essay will consist of arguments to support and defend this belief.
A thesis statement should be provided early in your paper – in the introduction part, or in the second paragraph, if your paper is longer.
It is impossible to create a thesis statement immediately when you have just started fulfilling your assignment. Before you write a thesis statement, you should collect, organize and analyze materials and your ideas. You cannot make a finally formulated statement before you have completed your reseach paper. It will naturally change while you develop your ideas.
Stay away from generic and too fuzzy statements and arguments. Use a particular subject. The paper should present something new to the audience to make it interesting and educative to read.
Avoid citing other authors in this section. Present your own ideas in your own words instead of simply copying from other writers.
A thesis statement should do the following:
- Explain the readers how you interpret the subject of the research
- Tell the readers what to expect from your paper
- Answer the question you were asked
- Present your claim which other people may want to dispute
Make sure your thesis is strong.
If you have time and opportunity, show it to your instructor to revise. Otherwise, you may estimate it yourself.
You must check:
- Does my statement answer the question of my assignment?
- Can my position be disputed or opposed? If not, maybe you have just provided a summary instead of creating an argument.
- Is my statement precise enough? It should not be too general and vague.
- Does it pass a so-called “so what” test? Does it provide new/interesting information to your audience or does it simply state a generic fact?
- Does the body of my manuscript support my thesis, or are they different things? Compare them and change if necessary. Remember that changing elements of your work in the process of writing and reviewing is normal.
A well-prepared thesis means well-shaped ideas. It increases credibility of the paper and makes good impression about its author.
More helpful hints about Writing a Research Paper.
STEP 4. MAKE A RESEARCH PAPER OUTLINE
A research paper basically has the following structure:
- Title Page (including the title, the author’s name, the name of a University or colledge, and the publication date)
- Abstract (brief summary of the paper – 250 words or less)
- Introduction (background information on the topic or a brief comment leading into the subject matter – up to 2 pages)
- Manuscript Body, which can be broken down in further sections, depending on the nature of research:
- Materials and Methods
- Results (what are the results obtained)
- Discussion and Conclusion etc.
- Tables, figures, and appendix (optional)
An outline might be formal or informal.
An informal outline (working outline) is a tool helping an author put down and organize their ideas. It is subject to revision, addition and canceling, without paying much attention to form. It helps an author to make their key points clear for him/her and arrange them.
Sometimes the students are asked to submit formal outlines with their research papers.
In a formal outline, numbers and letters are used to arrange topics and subtopics. The letters and numbers of the same kind should be placed directly under one another. The topics denoted by their headings and subheadings should be grouped in a logical order.
All points of a research paper outline must relate to the same major topic that you first mentioned in your capital Roman numeral.
Example of an outline:I. INTRODUCTION - (Brief comment leading into subject matter - Thesis statement on Shakespeare) II. BODY - Shakespeare's Early Life, Marriage, Works, Later Years A. Early life in Stratford 1. Shakespeare's family a. Shakespeare's father b. Shakespeare's mother 2. Shakespeare's marriage a. Life of Anne Hathaway b. Reference in Shakespeare's Poems B. Shakespeare's works 1. Plays a. Tragedies i. Hamlet ii. Romeo and Juliet b. Comedies i. The Tempest ii. Much Ado About Nothing c. Histories i. King John ii. Richard III iii. Henry VIII 2. Sonnets 3. Other poems C. Shakespeare's Later Years 1. Last two plays 2. Retired to Stratford a. Death b. Burial i. Epitaph on his tombstone III. CONCLUSION A. Analytical summary 1. Shakespeare's early life 2. Shakespeare's works 3. Shakespeare's later years B. Thesis reworded C. Concluding statement
The purpose of an outline is to help you think through your topic carefully and organize it logically before you start writing. A good outline is the most important step in writing a good paper. Check your outline to make sure that the points covered flow logically from one to the other. Include in your outline an INTRODUCTION, a BODY, and a CONCLUSION. Make the first outline tentative.
INTRODUCTION – State your thesis and the purpose of your research paper clearly. What is the chief reason you are writing the paper? State also how you plan to approach your topic. Is this a factual report, a book review, a comparison, or an analysis of a problem? Explain briefly the major points you plan to cover in your paper and why readers should be interested in your topic.
BODY – This is where you present your arguments to support your thesis statement. Remember the Rule of 3, i.e. find 3 supporting arguments for each position you take. Begin with a strong argument, then use a stronger one, and end with the strongest argument for your final point.
CONCLUSION – Restate or reword your thesis. Summarize your arguments. Explain why you have come to this particular conclusion.
STEP 5. ORGANIZE YOUR NOTES
Organize all the information you have gathered according to your outline. Critically analyze your research data. Using the best available sources, check for accuracy and verify that the information is factual, up-to-date, and correct. Opposing views should also be noted if they help to support your thesis. This is the most important stage in writing a research paper. Here you will analyze, synthesize, sort, and digest the information you have gathered and hopefully learn something about your topic which is the real purpose of doing a research paper in the first place. You must also be able to effectively communicate your thoughts, ideas, insights, and research findings to others through written words as in a report, an essay, a research or term paper, or through spoken words as in an oral or multimedia presentation with audio-visual aids.
Do not include any information that is not relevant to your topic, and do not include information that you do not understand. Make sure the information that you have noted is carefully recorded and in your own words, if possible. Plagiarism is definitely out of the question. Document all ideas borrowed or quotes used very accurately. As you organize your notes, jot down detailed bibliographical information for each cited paragraph and have it ready to transfer to your Works Cited page.
Devise your own method to organize your notes. One method may be to mark with a different color ink or use a hi-liter to identify sections in your outline, e.g., IA3b – meaning that the item “Accessing WWW” belongs in the following location of your outline:I. Understanding the Internet A. What is the Internet 3. How to "Surf the Net" b. Accessing WWW
Group your notes following the outline codes you have assigned to your notes, e.g., IA2, IA3, IA4, etc. This method will enable you to quickly put all your resources in the right place as you organize your notes according to your outline.
STEP 6. WRITE YOUR FIRST DRAFT
Start with the first topic in your outline. Read all the relevant notes you have gathered that have been marked, e.g. with the capital Roman numeral I.
Summarize, paraphrase or quote directly for each idea you plan to use in your essay. Use a technique that suits you, e.g. write summaries, paraphrases or quotations on note cards, or separate sheets of lined paper. Mark each card or sheet of paper clearly with your outline code or reference, e.g., IB2a or IIC, etc.
Put all your note cards or paper in the order of your outline, e.g. IA, IB, IC. If using a word processor, create meaningful filenames that match your outline codes for easy cut and paste as you type up your final paper, e.g. cut first Introduction paragraph and paste it to IA. Before you know it, you have a well organized term paper completed exactly as outlined.
If it is helpful to you, use a symbol such as “#” to mark the spot where you would like to check back later to edit a paragraph. The unusual symbol will make it easy for you to find the exact location again. Delete the symbol once editing is completed.
STEP 7. REVISE YOUR OUTLINE AND DRAFT
Read your paper for any content errors. Double check the facts and figures. Arrange and rearrange ideas to follow your outline. Reorganize your outline if necessary, but always keep the purpose of your paper and your readers in mind. Use a free grammar and proof reading checker such as Grammarly.
1. Is my thesis statement concise and clear?
2. Did I follow my outline? Did I miss anything?
3. Are my arguments presented in a logical sequence?
4. Are all sources properly cited to ensure that I am not plagiarizing?
5. Have I proved my thesis with strong supporting arguments?
6. Have I made my intentions and points clear in the essay?
Re-read your paper for grammatical errors. Use a dictionary or a thesaurus as needed. Do a spell check. Correct all errors that you can spot and improve the overall quality of the paper to the best of your ability. Get someone else to read it over. Sometimes a second pair of eyes can see mistakes that you missed.
1. Did I begin each paragraph with a proper topic sentence?
2. Have I supported my arguments with documented proof or examples?
3. Any run-on or unfinished sentences?
4. Any unnecessary or repetitious words?
5. Varying lengths of sentences?
6. Does one paragraph or idea flow smoothly into the next?
7. Any spelling or grammatical errors?
8. Quotes accurate in source, spelling, and punctuation?
9. Are all my citations accurate and in correct format?
10. Did I avoid using contractions? Use “cannot” instead of “can’t”, “do not” instead of “don’t”?
11. Did I use third person as much as possible? Avoid using phrases such as “I think”, “I guess”, “I suppose”
12. Have I made my points clear and interesting but remained objective?
13. Did I leave a sense of completion for my reader(s) at the end of the paper?
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk, Jr.
For an excellent source on English composition, check out this classic book by William Strunk, Jr. on the Elements of Style. Contents include: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, Words & Expressions Commonly Misused, An Approach to Style with a List of Reminders: Place yourself in the background, Revise and rewrite, Avoid fancy words, Be clear, Do not inject opinion, Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity, … and much more. Details of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. partially available online at Bartleby.com. Note: William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946). The Elements of Style was first published in 1918.
There is also a particular formatting style you must follow. It depends on the field of your studies or the requirements of your University/supervisor.
There are several formatting styles typically used. The most commonly used are the APA style and the MLA style. However, there are such style guides as the Chicago Manual of Style, American Medical Association (AMA) Style, and more.
APA (American Psychological Association) style is mostly used to cite sources within the field of social sciences. The detailed information can be found in Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, (6th ed., 2nd printing).
MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used for the liberal arts and humanities. The most recent printed guide on it is the MLA Handbook (8th ed.). Instead of providing individual recommendations for each publishing format (printed, online, e-books etc.), this edition recommends a single universal set of guidelines, which writers can apply to any kind of source.
You should necessarily ask your instuctor which formatting style is required for your paper and format it accordingly before submitting.
STEP 8. TYPE FINAL PAPER
All formal reports or essays should be typewritten and printed, preferably on a good quality printer.
Read the assignment sheet again to be sure that you understand fully what is expected of you, and that your essay meets the requirements as specified by your teacher. Know how your essay will be evaluated.
Proofread final paper carefully for spelling, punctuation, missing or duplicated words. Make the effort to ensure that your final paper is clean, tidy, neat, and attractive.
Aim to have your final paper ready a day or two before the deadline. This gives you peace of mind and a chance to triple check. Before handing in your assignment for marking, ask yourself: “Is this the VERY BEST that I can do?”