If this is your first time writing a research essay at your university, then this article is for you. At the time I’m writing this, many of you may have reached the end of your semester… which, for Arts students at least, is the most hectic week in terms of final projects and assignments!
Here’s something I think will get you to review the core of your essay. It’s back to basics time! After all, a minor mistake in the format or referencing style can make a huge difference between a distinction and a credit. Maybe these are things you’ve stopped thinking about, but from my experience, they are the most important in writing your best essays.
So here are the five steps to getting started on your research essay for the first time.
1. Get to know the guidelines given.
This may sound obvious but many students end up writing their essay the way they want to instead of the way the lecturer wants it to be.
Before you even start worrying about the essay question, keep the guidelines glued to your screen. It could be in the form of a marking scheme. Print them if you want and highlight everything you shouldn’t forget. The stupidest ways I lost marks were when I forgot to insert page numbers and when I formatted the title with a different font size. Yes, these are real incidents. I was in my first semester and I had never submitted an online assignment before.
If your lecturer is kind enough to give you a downloadable format for the essay, TAKE IT. Open it in Microsoft Word and save it as a template. Then, use it and you won’t be worried about doing formatting mistakes.
2. Analyse the question.
If you are in Arts, you will probably have a choice. Choose wisely. The easiest question isn’t always easy. Instead, choose a question you can understand at a glance. Choose a question you’ll enjoy working on. Please.
It’s possible that you don’t understand the question. What does it want from you? First, highlight the keywords; you’ll have a better understanding of what you have to do. Then, break it down… because I’m sure that the question is the length of a whole paragraph. There are different parts in an essay question, which is often good since you’ll find you’ll have a lot to write about.
To be honest, I keep reading and re-reading the question until I get it; until it stays in my head. That way, when I read the required materials, I can already see how I can use them in my essay.
3. Create an outline and gather the evidence.
I would have divided this section into two, but I found that my outline often changes according to the materials I’m collecting for my essay.
Okay, let me explain. Here’s an example of an essay question:
Explain how sound can shape our understanding of a film’s images and can contribute to the meaning of the film as a whole (using two movies viewed in class).
Going back to step 2, the keywords could be “sound”, “understanding of a film’s images” and “contribute to the meaning”. And if we break it down, we get two parts: 1) how sound shapes our understanding of a film’s images, and 2) how it can contribute to the film’s meaning.
The outline is all about how you’re planning to structure your essay. How are your arguments going to connect and flow as a whole? There is no right or wrong answer.
In the example, the obvious one would be a structure of the two parts that were mentioned above. But another option would also to divide the essay between the analysis of the two movies. So, part 1 would be about the use and meaning of sound devices in movie 1, while part 2 would be about the same in terms of movie 2. Thus, you could either structure your essay around the concept of sound or around the two movies.
It all depends on how you would like to present your evidence. What do I mean by that? Well, you can’t just write a research essay without doing research (a minimum of 10 journal articles to read!). Before writing your essay, you will have to formulate an informed opinion… and you do that by researching the subject.
Go to your library’s database and look for backed up scientific articles (yes, even for Arts, they are scientific because they use and analyse real data). DON’T USE ONLINE BLOGS OR UNVERIFIED WEBSITES. Or Wikipedia. Please, for the sake of analytical research.
The more you read about the subject you’re writing on, the better you’ll be able to organise your essay and formulate your arguments in a clear and precise way.
(Seriously, I change my outline a thousand times when I’m researching before finally settling on one.)
4. Ask your lecturer everything.
You may have noticed that the advice in this post is quite general. That’s because every essay is different. An essay in Psychology can be completely different from an essay in Communication. No matter how much you google how to write an essay online, it won’t be enough.
The real how-to answers you seek are with your lecturer or tutor… or whoever is marking your work. After reading this, you may have a general understanding on how to tackle your question, but you may also have even more questions related to your specific essay. Note them down and email your teacher.
If you’re on campus right now, head to their office. Don’t be intimidated; believe me, lecturers usually love to talk about their work and are ready to help.
Don’t plagiarise. What that means is, every opinion, theory or piece of evidence you put in your essay will have to be credited to the rightful author(s). Even if your conclusion is yours, you have come to it because of specific articles. So there’s always something to be referenced.
Usually, the lecturer will let you know the preferred referencing style you should use for your research essay (and this will vary from lecturer to lecturer!), but if it wasn’t mentioned, ask. You have to know the referencing style you’ll need because some of them have very peculiar requirements.
For instance, MLA requires you to write the page number every time you reference a journal article. Such a pain! But at least, while you’re doing your research you can already write the specific page number next to its related piece of evidence. Other styles have their templates online, so it’s like going back to step one.
In my university, referencing is so important that it counts as 10% of your total marks.
So you better watch out.
If you have any questions about essay writing, let me know in the comments below! I’ll try my best to answer them.
D. K. Waye.
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