How to Do Research for an Excellent Essay: the Complete Guide

19 May, 2014

Image shows a book on a sunny windowsill, which is also laden with decorations and potted plants.

One of the biggest secrets to writing a good essay is the Boy Scouts’ motto: ‘be prepared’.

Preparing for an essay – by conducting effective research – lays the foundations for a brilliant piece of writing, and it’s every bit as important as the actual writing part. Many students skimp on this crucial stage, or sit in the library not really sure where to start; and it shows in the quality of their essays. This just makes it easier for you to get ahead of your peers, and we’re going to show you how. In this article, we take you through what you need to do in order to conduct effective research and use your research time to best effect.

Allow enough time

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Make sure you leave yourself enough time so you don’t have to rush your work.

First and foremost, it’s vital to allow enough time for your research. For this reason, don’t leave your essay until the last minute. If you start writing without having done adequate research, it will almost certainly show in your essay’s lack of quality. The amount of research time needed will vary according to whether you’re at Sixth Form or university, and according to how well you know the topic and what teaching you’ve had on it, but make sure you factor in more time than you think you’ll need. You may come across a concept that takes you longer to understand than you’d expected, so it’s better to allow too much time than too little.

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Read the essay question and thoroughly understand it

If you don’t have a thorough understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do, you put yourself at risk of going in the wrong direction with your research. So take the question, read it several times and pull out the key things it’s asking you to do. The instructions in the question are likely to have some bearing on the nature of your research. If the question says “Compare”, for example, this will set you up for a particular kind of research, during which you’ll be looking specifically for points of comparison; if the question asks you to “Discuss”, your research focus may be more on finding different points of view and formulating your own.

Begin with a brainstorm

Image shows a huge whiteboard covered with brainstormed ideas.

Brainstorming can be a great way to figure out what your thoughts and ideas are, as well as mapping what you already know.

Start your research time by brainstorming what you already know. Doing this means that you can be clear about exactly what you’re already aware of, and you can identify the gaps in your knowledge so that you don’t end up wasting time by reading books that will tell you what you already know. This gives your research more of a direction and allows you to be more specific in your efforts to find out certain things. It’s also a gentle way of introducing yourself to the task and putting yourself in the right frame of mind for learning about the topic at hand.

Achieve a basic understanding before delving deeper

If the topic is new to you and your brainstorm has yielded few ideas, you’ll need to acquire a basic understanding of the topic before you begin delving deeper into your research. If you don’t, and you start by your research by jumping straight in at the deep end, as it were, you’ll struggle to grasp the topic. This also means that you may end up being too swayed by a certain source, as you haven’t the knowledge to question it properly. You need sufficient background knowledge to be able to take a critical approach to each of the sources you read. So, start from the very beginning. It’s ok to use Wikipedia or other online resources to give you an introduction to a topic, though bear in mind that these can’t be wholly relied upon. If you’ve covered the topic in class already, re-read the notes you made so that you can refresh your mind before you start further investigation.

Working through your reading list

Image shows a young woman dozing on top of a pile of law books.

Don’t neglect your reading list.

If you’ve been given a reading list to work from, be organised in how you work through each of the items on it. Try to get hold of as many of the books on it as you can before you start, so that you have them all easily to hand, and can refer back to things you’ve read and compare them with other perspectives. Plan the order in which you’re going to work through them and try to allocate a specific amount of time to each of them; this ensures that you allow enough time to do each of them justice and that focus yourself on making the most of your time with each one. It’s a good idea to go for the more general resources before honing in on the finer points mentioned in more specialised literature. Think of an upside-down pyramid and how it starts off wide at the top and becomes gradually narrower; this is the sort of framework you should apply to your research.

Ask a librarian

Library computer databases can be confusing things, and can add an extra layer of stress and complexity to your research if you’re not used to using them. The librarian is there for a reason, so don’t be afraid to go and ask if you’re not sure where to find a particular book on your reading list. If you’re in need of somewhere to start, they should be able to point you in the direction of the relevant section of the library so that you can also browse for books that may yield useful information.

Use the index

If you haven’t been given specific pages to read in the books on your reading list, make use of the index (and/or table of contents) of each book to help you find relevant material. It sounds obvious, but some students don’t think to do this and battle their way through heaps of irrelevant chapters before finding something that will be useful for their essay.

Taking notes

Image shows a woman making notes while sitting in a courtyard.

If you make a really good set of notes, save them for when exams roll around.

As you work through your reading, take notes as you go along rather than hoping you’ll remember everything you’ve read. Don’t indiscriminately write down everything – only the bits that will be useful in answering the essay question you’ve been set. If you write down too much, you risk writing an essay that’s full of irrelevant material and getting lower grades as a result. Be concise, and summarise arguments in your own words when you make notes (this helps you learn it better, too, because you actually have to think about how best to summarise it). You may want to make use of small index cards to force you to be brief with what you write about each point or topic. We’ve covered effective note-taking extensively in another article, which you can read here. Note-taking is a major part of the research process, so don’t neglect it. Your notes don’t just come in useful in the short-term, for completing your essay, but they should also be helpful when it comes to revision time, so try to keep them organised.

Research every side of the argument

Never rely too heavily on one resource without referring to other possible opinions; it’s bad academic practice. You need to be able to give a balanced argument in an essay, and that means researching a range of perspectives on whatever problem you’re tackling. Keep a note of the different arguments, along with the evidence in support of or against each one, ready to be deployed into an essay structure that works logically through each one. If you see a scholar’s name cropping up again and again in what you read, it’s worth investigating more about them even if you haven’t specifically been told to do so. Context is vital in academia at any level, so influential figures are always worth knowing about.

Keep a dictionary by your side

Image shows an open dictionary, with someone searching for a word; only their hands are visible.

Having a dictionary to hand means you won’t get stuck on a particular word.

You could completely misunderstand a point you read if you don’t know what one important word in the sentence means. For that reason, it’s a good idea to keep a dictionary by your side at all times as you conduct your research. Not only does this help you fully understand what you’re reading, but you also learn new words that you might be able to use in your forthcoming essay or a future one. Growing your vocabulary is never a waste of time!

Start formulating your own opinion

As you work through reading these different points of view, think carefully about what you’ve read and note your own response to different opinions. Get into the habit of questioning sources and make sure you’re not just repeating someone else’s opinion without challenging it. Does an opinion make sense? Does it have plenty of evidence to back it up? What are the counter-arguments, and on balance, which sways you more? Demonstrating your own intelligent thinking will set your essay apart from those of your peers, so think about these things as you conduct your research.

Be careful with web-based research

Image shows the Wikipedia logo.

You should never reference Wikipedia in an essay. If you research has to be mostly online, try academic resources like Google Scholar.

Although, as we’ve said already, it’s fine to use Wikipedia and other online resources to give you a bit of an introduction to a topic you haven’t covered before, be very careful when using the internet for researching an essay. Don’t take Wikipedia as gospel; don’t forget, anybody can edit it! We wouldn’t advise using the internet as the basis of your essay research – it’s simply not academically rigorous enough, and you don’t know how out of date a particular resource might be. Even if your Sixth Form teachers may not question where you picked up an idea you’ve discussed in your essays, it’s still not a good habit to get into and you’re unlikely to get away with it at a good university. That said, there are still reliable academic resources available via the internet; these can be found in dedicated sites that are essentially online libraries, such as JSTOR. These are likely to be a little too advanced if you’re still in Sixth Form, but you’ll almost certainly come across them once you get to university.

Look out for footnotes

In an academic publication, whether that’s a book or a journal article, footnotes are a great place to look for further ideas for publications that might yield useful information. Plenty can be hidden away in footnotes, and if a writer is disparaging or supporting the ideas of another academic, you could look up the text in question so that you can include their opinion too, and whether or not you agree with them, for extra brownie points.

Don’t save doing all your own references until last

Image shows towering piles of books that must include hundreds of volumes.

“Now, which one of these had the Marxist reading of Macbeth I was referring to?”

If you’re still in Sixth Form, you might not yet be required to include academic references in your essays, but for the sake of a thorough guide to essay research that will be useful to you in the future, we’re going to include this point anyway (it will definitely come in useful when you get to university, so you may as well start thinking about it now!). As you read through various books and find points you think you’re going to want to make in your essays, make sure you note down where you found these points as you go along (author’s first and last name, the publication title, publisher, publication date and page number). When you get to university you will be expected to identify your sources very precisely, so it’s a good habit to get into. Unfortunately, many students forget to do this and then have a difficult time of going back through their essay adding footnotes and trying to remember where they found a particular point. You’ll save yourself a great deal of time and effort if you simply note down your academic references as you go along. If you are including footnotes, don’t forget to add each publication to a main bibliography, to be included at the end of your essay, at the same time.

Putting in the background work required to write a good essay can seem an arduous task at times, but it’s a fundamental step that can’t simply be skipped. The more effort you put in at this stage, the better your essay will be and the easier it will be to write. Use the tips in this article and you’ll be well on your way to an essay that impresses!

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Image credits: banner; stopwatch; brainstorm; pile of books; notes; dictionary; Wikipedia; lots of books

One Response to “How to Do Research for an Excellent Essay: the Complete Guide”

  1. May 29, 2014 at 12:31 pm, James Harlan (@c_jvinson) said:

    “We wouldn’t advise using the internet as the basis of your essay research”

    These lines reminded me of the opinion of our librarian. She once told us to be careful about the information we read from the internet. We have to examine if it holds truth.

    Glad you’ve shared reliable information.


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