Research Skills For Essay Writing

This page continues from our page: Planning an Essay, the essential first step to successful essay writing.

This page assumes that you have already planned your essay, you have taken time to understand the essay question, gathered information that you intend to use, and have produced a skeleton plan of you essay – taking into account your word limit.

This page is concerned with the actual writing of your essay, it provides some guidelines for good practice as well as some common mistakes you'll want to avoid.


Structuring Your Essay

An essay should be written in a flowing manner with each sentence following on logically from the previous one and with appropriate signposts to guide the reader.

An essay usually takes the following structured format:

  • The introduction
  • The main body: a development of the issues
  • A conclusion
  • A list of references of the sources of information you have used

The Introduction

The function of the introduction is simply to introduce the subject, to explain how you understand the question, and describe briefly how you intend to deal with it.

You could begin by defining essential terms, providing a brief historical or personal context if appropriate, and/or by explaining why you think the subject is significant or interesting.

Warning


Some people are far too ambitious in writing their introductions. Writing a lengthy introduction limits the number of words available for the main body of the assignment.


Keep the introduction short, preferably to one or two paragraphs and keep it, succinct, to the point.

Some students find it best to write a provisional introduction, when starting to write an essay, and then to rewrite this when they have finished the first draft of their essay. To write a provisional introduction, ask yourself what the reader needs to know in order to follow your subsequent discussion.

Other students write the introduction after they have written the main body of the essay – do whatever feels right for you and the piece of work you are writing.

The Main Body: A Development of the Issues

Essays are generally a blend of researched evidence (e.g. from additional reading) and comment.

Some students' essays amount to catalogues of factual material or summaries of other people's thoughts, attitudes, philosophies or viewpoints.

At the opposite extreme, other students express only personal opinions with little or no researched evidence or examples taken from other writers to support their views.  What is needed is a balance.

The balance between other researchers’ and writers’ analysis of the subject and your own comment will vary with the subject and the nature of the question.   Generally, it is important to back up the points you wish to make from your experience with the findings of other published researchers and writers.

You will have likely been given a reading list or some core text books to read. Use these as your research base but try to expand on what is said and read around the subject as fully as you can. Always keep a note of your sources as you go along.

You will be encouraged and expected to cite other authors or to quote or paraphrase from books that you have read. The most important requirement is that the material you cite or use should illustrate, or provide evidence of, the point you are making. How much evidence you use depends on the type of essay you are writing.

If you want a weight of evidence on some factual point, bring in two or three examples but no more.

Quotations should not be used as a substitute for your own words. A quote should always have an explanation in your own words to show its significance to your argument.

When you are citing another author's text you should always indicate exactly where the evidence comes from with a reference, i.e. give the author's name, date of publication and the page number in your work.  A full reference should also be provided in the reference list at the end.

See our page: Academic Referencing for more information.

A Conclusion

At the end of an essay you should include a short conclusion, the purpose of which is to sum up or draw a conclusion from your argument or comparison of viewpoints.

In other words, indicate what has been learned or accomplished. The conclusion is also a good place to mention questions that are left open or further issues which you recognise, but which do not come within the scope of your essay.

Neither the conclusion, nor the introduction, should totally summarise your whole argument: if you try this, you are in danger of writing another assignment that simply repeats the whole case over again.

References

You must include a reference list or bibliography at the end of your work.

One common downfall is to not reference adequately and be accused of plagiarism. If you have directly quoted any other author's text you should always indicate exactly where the evidence comes from in a reference. If you have read other documents in order to contrast your argument then these should also be referenced.

See our page: Academic Referencing for a more comprehensive look at the importance of referencing and how to reference properly.


Signposting or Guiding your Reader

When writing an essay it is good practice to consider your reader.

To guide the reader through your work you will need to inform them where you are starting from (in the introduction), where you are going (as the essay progresses), and where you have been (in the conclusion).

It is helpful to keep the reader informed as to the development of the argument. You can do this by using simple statements or questions that serve to introduce, summarise or link the different aspects of your subject.

Here are a few examples:

  • There are two reasons for this:  first,... second,...
  • Moreover, it should not be forgotten that...
  • With regard to the question of...
  • Another important factor to be considered is...
  • How can these facts be interpreted? The first point...
  • There are several views on this question. The first is...
  • Finally, it is important to consider...

Constructing Paragraphs

One important way of guiding the reader through your essay is by using paragraphs.

Paragraphs show when you have come to the end of one main point and the beginning of the next.  A paragraph is a group of sentences related to aspects of the same point.  Within each individual paragraph an idea is introduced and developed through the subsequent sentences within that paragraph.

Everyone finds it easier to read a text that is broken into short paragraphs.

Without paragraphs, and the spaces between them, the page will appear like an indigestible mass of words.

 

You should construct your essay as a sequence of distinct points set out in a rational order.

Each sentence and paragraph should follow logically from the one before and it is important that you do not force your reader to make the connections. Always make these connections clear signposting where the argument or discussion is going next.

Although the points you are making may seem obvious to you, can they be more clearly and simply stated?

It is also worth bearing in mind that the marker of your work may have a lot of other, similar pieces of work to mark and assess. Try to make yours easy to read and follow – make it stand out, for the right reasons!


Essay Style


There are two general misconceptions about essay style:

  • One is that a good essay should be written in a formal, impersonal way with a good scattering of long words and long, complicated sentences.
  • The other misconception is to write as we talk. Such a style is fine for personal letters or notes, but not in an essay. You can be personal, but a certain degree of formality and objectivity is expected in an academic essay.

The important requirement of style is clarity and precision of expression.

Where appropriate use simple and logical language and write in full or complete sentences.  You should avoid jargon, especially jargon that is not directly connected to your subject area. You can be personal by offering your own viewpoint on an issue, or by using that view to interpret other authors' work and conclusions.


Drafts and Rewriting

Most essays can be improved by a thorough edit.

You can cross out one word and substitute another, change the shape or emphasis of a sentence, remove inconsistencies of thought or terminology, remove repetitions and ensure there is adequate referencing. 

In short, you are your first reader, edit and criticise your own work to make it better. Sometimes it is useful to read your essay out loud.

Another useful exercise is to ask someone else to read the essay through.  A person proofreading the essay for the first time will have a different perspective from your own and will therefore be better placed to point out any incoherence, lack of structure, grammatical errors, etc.

Ideally find somebody to proofread who has a good grasp of spelling and grammar and at least a casual interest in your subject area.

One or two edits should be sufficient.  It is best not to become involved in an unproductive multiplicity of drafts.  The remedy is to analyse the question again and write another, simple, plan based on how to organise the material you are not happy with in the draft of your essay.  Rewrite the essay according to that revised plan and resist the tendency to panic in the middle, tear it up and start all over again.  It is important to get to the end and then revise again.  Otherwise you will have a perfect opening couple of paragraphs and potentially the rest of the essay in disarray.

You will learn and improve much more through criticising and correcting your work than by simply starting again.


Don't Panic!

A few students can get so anxious about an assignment that they find themselves unable to write anything at all.

There are several reasons why this can happen. The primary reason is usually that such students set themselves too high a standard and then panic because they cannot attain it. This may also be due to factors such as the fear of the expectations of others or placing too high an expectation on themselves.

Whatever the reason, if you cannot write an assignment, you have to find a way out of your panic.  If you find yourself in this position, do not allow the situation to drift; try to act swiftly.  Discussing your worries with your tutor and/or peers, or simply writing them down, will help you clarify why you might feel stuck.

Another trick is to dash off what you consider to be a 'bad' essay, hand it in and see what happens, or decide to write the assignment in two hours without notes or references and see how that goes. You can always come back to enter the references later.

Students often say that their hurried and most casual essay got a higher mark than one which they struggled with for weeks; in fact this happened because they got down to essentials and made their points quickly.  The experiment might be worth a try.

If, despite study and good intentions, you cannot seem to get your essay written, or even started, you should let your tutor know as soon as possible.

Your tutor will have encountered such problems many times, and it is part of his/her job to help you sort them out.

Academic essay writing is a style that anyone can learn to produce, once they know the basics of writing an essay. An academic essay should provide a solid, debatable thesis that is then supported by relevant evidence—whether that be from other sources or from one's own research. Most research follows a standard set of guidelines. Remembering some basic principles for academic essay writing will allow you to create valuable, persuasive papers, even if you're under a time crunch.

Make an outline. Know what you are going to write about before you start writing.

Before you even start writing an essay, it is important to know what you want to say. The easiest way to narrow down a thesis and create a proper argument is to make a basic outline before you begin writing your essay. The basic structure of an academic essay includes the following elements: an introduction that includes the thesis; the body of the essay, which should include separate paragraphs discussing evidence that supports the thesis; and a conclusion that ties everything together and connects it to the thesis. When it comes to how much evidence should be included in an academic essay, a good guideline is to include at least three solid points that directly support your thesis.

Acquire a solid understanding of basic grammar, style, and punctuation.

Grammar, style, and punctuation are incredibly important if you want your research to be understood and taken seriously. Before writing an essay, make sure you have a solid understanding of basic grammar. Grammar basics include verb and subject agreement, proper article and pronoun usage, and well-formed sentence structures. Make sure you know the proper uses for the most common forms of punctuation. Be mindful of your comma usage and know when a period is needed. Finally, in academic essay writing, voice is important. Try to use the active voice instead of the passive whenever possible (e.g., "this study found" instead of "it was found by this study"). This will make the tone of your essay stronger. Ensure your language is concise. Avoid transition words that don't add anything to the sentence and unnecessary wordiness that detracts from your argument.

Use the right vocabulary. Know what the words you are using actually mean.

How you use language is important, especially in academic essay writing. When writing an academic essay, remember that you are trying to persuade others that you are an expert who can make an intelligent argument. Using big words just to sound smart often results in the opposite effect—it is easy to detect when someone is overcompensating in their writing. If you aren't sure of the exact meaning of a word, you risk using it incorrectly. Using obscure language can also take away from the clarity of your argument—you should consider this before you pull out that thesaurus to change that perfectly good word to something completely different.

Understand the argument and critically analyze the evidence.

In the process of writing an academic essay, you should always have your main argument in mind. While it might be tempting to go off on a tangent about some interesting side note to your topic, doing so can make your writing less concise. Always question any evidence you include in your essay; ask yourself, "Does this directly support my thesis?" If the answer is "no," then that evidence should probably be excluded. When you are evaluating evidence, be critical and thorough. You want to use the strongest research to back up your thesis. Everything you include should have a clear connection to your topic and your argument.

Know how to write a proper conclusion that supports your research.

One of the most overlooked areas of academic essay writing is the conclusion. Your conclusion is what ties all your research together to prove your thesis. It should not be a restatement of your introduction or a copy-and-paste of your thesis itself. A proper conclusion quickly outlines the key evidence discussed in the body of an essay and directly ties it to the thesis to show how this evidence proves or disproves the main argument of one's research. There have been countless great essays written, only to be derailed by vague, weakly worded conclusions. Don't let your next essay be one of those.

Image source: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash.com


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