We are all filled with dread when ‘research essay’ comes up in a module handbook. Then you notice it’s worth 80% of your module grade. At school essays were easy. You just had to PEE all over your work (oh, how we all laughed at Point, Evidence, Explanation). But now, you’re hopeless at the new format for essays and don’t know where to start.
Baby steps will get you that great grade.
There are plenty of books out there that claim to have the answer to writing a good essay but really you don’t need to read over 100 pages to get the hang of it. It can be done in 10 simple steps.
This one isn’t rocket science. If you get a head start and have months until your deadline, you’re going to do better than rushing it the night before. Starting early means you can take regular breaks along the way and keep looking at your work with fresh eyes.
1) Your notebook
The list of top tips starts with a notebook? Well, don’t stop reading just because it seems like a stupid place to start! We’ll get to the harder bits in a minute but what you need to really get started is a nice new notebook. You’ll be more motivated to work if you’ve got a nice clean notebook to make your notes in.
On top of that, you’re not going to get distracted by a notebook but if you’re on your laptop… let’s be honest, you’ll be on YouTube in no time.
2) Your stationary
Coloured pens, highlighters, Post-Its – you need them all! You may not use them all but just having them sat next to you will make you feel more productive. You got this!
3) A clear desk
Get rid of your distractions. Bin your food wrappers and scraps of paper with doodles on. Put your phone and laptop on the other side of the room, and focus on your notebook.
4) Plan your plan
All the best plans start with a plan. It may seem like you’re procrastinating but really you’re just lowering yourself into the essay gently. Make bullet points of sections you know you’ll need and any initial ideas you have. There doesn’t need to be an order to anything on your list, you just need to make sure you make note of everything you can’t let yourself forget.
5) Your plan
Okay, so we’re finally at the hard bit. You’ve got the equipment, you know what needs to be in the essay and now it’s time to get started. Make this first step better by colour coding it – which is basically just an excuse to make your plan look pretty. This bit literally just involves writing headings:
1) Working title
3) Secondary research
4) Primary research
5) Data analysis
6) Flesh it out
So you can now come up with a working title. What’s your essay on? What question could you ask? You can change this later on (hence ‘working’ title) so don’t think too long and hard about it.
Then in your intro section, explain why you’ve chosen your question and what you want to find out. Say what problem you’re going to solve and what data you want to use to solve that problem. Basically, add context to your question.
Secondary research may also be called a literature review. This means reading what other people have said about your topic and writing it down. So in this section of your plan, write down which articles/books you want to look at and what you want to look for in them.
Primary research then explains what you want your own research to be. Take your idea from your secondary research and work out how you can develop the theories others have had. Plan an experiment like a survey or a text analysis.
You can’t add anything to your data analysis or conclusion sections until further down the line.
7) Information dump
Once you’ve worked out which texts you need for your research and got your hands on them you can start collecting your information. Read and write down EVERYTHING that you see that might be useful. Even if it seems like a tenuous link to your essay topic, you never know if your topic will change slightly further down the line so it might come in useful.
This is the bit that makes a research essay a RESEARCH essay. You may end up with thousands of words that seem overbearing and have no order but it doesn’t matter. That’s a problem for future you.
8) Review your plan
Once you’ve got your information, you can work out how it fits with your original plan. Does the research you’ve done change the question you want to ask? If so, change it.
Look at what you’ve found and make note of what you couldn’t find. What you can’t find is what you want to focus on. This is the primary research you need to do. So write your heading and why that’s what you’re investigating. Segway into talking about the secondary research you’ve done, extracting the stuff that fits from your information dump.
9) Do your primary research
It will be obvious from your secondary research what your primary research needs to be. Make sure you leave plenty of time to do it because this can be the lengthy bit. Then write down what you found out from doing your research. What’s the pattern in your results and what can you conclude from that?
Make sure you’ve answered your question! Your conclusion provides an overview of what you found in both your primary and secondary research. Explain the significance of what you’ve found, perhaps relating it to wider society.
Get someone to proof-read! This is the important bit. Don’t submit anything without feedback. Get someone to read it over and point out any grammatical mistakes – you don’t want to lose marks for stupid little things. They also might notice something you’ve inferred wrong or explained wrong.
However, all schools/colleges/universities have their own ways of doing things. This is a basic outline but sometimes teachers are looking for something different so make sure you include everything they ask you to include.
See, a research essay isn’t so scary after all! What are your top tips? Leave a comment!
Featured image: bustle.com
A reporter for the FA, Media Officer for a National League football team, and a journalism student.