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...
Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
1. Pick a topic.
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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