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...