Researching your essay


This is time very well spent as part of your research strategy. It is not a time-consuming task, yet it will help you to use more of your own ideas and avoid wasting time in your research. Once you've learnt to do this, you will be able to make two important things clear to yourself before you start your research:

  1. What you know about the issues the essay question raises.
  2. The questions you want your sources to answer.

If you begin your research without doing this, certain things are likely to happen:

  • The authors you read will dictate to you: without your own ideas to protect you, it will be difficult, at times impossible, for you to resist the pull of their ideas and the persuasiveness of their arguments.
  • As a result you'll find yourself accepting the case they develop and the judgements they make without evaluating them sufficiently, even copying large sections of the text into your own notes.
  • You will find it difficult to avoid including a great mass of material in your essay that is quite irrelevant to your purposes. All of this material may have been relevant to the author's purposes when he or she wrote the book, but their purposes are rarely identical with yours.
  • Nevertheless, having spent days amassing this large quantity of notes, it's difficult to find the detachment to decide that most of these notes are irrelevant to your essay and you've got to ditch them. All of us are more likely to try to convince ourselves that they can "be made" relevant, and we end up including them in a long, discursive, shapeless essay, in which the examiner frequently feels lost in a mass of irrelevant material.
  • Because you haven't revealed what you know and think about the subject, it will be much more difficult for you to process the ideas you read, make them your own, and then use them convincingly.

Reading skills

Most of us spend hours reading texts that we need not have read. To avoid this you must read purposefully: you need to be clear why you're reading a particular text, what questions you need to answer, and what reading strategy is the most relevant for this purpose.

Many of us get into the habit of reading every passage word-for-word, regardless of our purpose in reading it, when in fact it might be more efficient to skim or scan it. Adopting a more flexible approach to our reading in this way frees up more of our time, so that we can read around our subject and take onboard more ideas and information. It also gives us more time to process the ideas not only into clearer structures that we can remember more clearly, but also in ways that allow us to criticise and evaluate what we read, rather than just accept what the author tells us.

For more advice, see reading strategies.

Making notes

The key to good note-taking is to make the structure clear. The mind remembers structures, not lists nor paragraphs of continuous prose. So, keep it free and uncluttered. Don't convince yourself that unless you include this one fact you'll never remember it. You will. The structure will act as a net bringing to the surface of your mind more than you ever thought you could remember. But it has to be a good net - well constructed, with clear logical connections and free of all unnecessary material.

Remind yourself that you do have a good memory if you help it with clear structures. Try not to be seduced into recording things that "might" be useful in the future. Inevitably, this results in masses of notes that obscure the main structure, which is the only means by which we can recall them in the first place.

For more advice, see making notes.

Make an outline plan for your writing

It takes time to rewrite each draft of your writing. The more you have to change, the longer it will take. This makes it worthwhile to develop a detailed outline of your writing. You can reorganise your plan as necessary, and progressively build on this until you complete your final draft.

An effective retrieval system

If we are to generate and use more of our own ideas and insights, we will have to spend some time organising an effective research strategy. The key to this is to have a retrieval system that is sufficiently adaptable to catch the material whenever and wherever it shows itself, and then provide us with a means of accessing it easily whenever we want it.

To create such a system isn't difficult, but it means going beyond the normal loose-leaf folder, a few wallet files and a reliable source of A4 paper. It calls for a thoughtful approach, a little imagination and, above all, flexibility. Unless we choose and organise its various components thoughtfully, we're likely to lose most of our best ideas, and produce work that is predictable and imitative of the ideas we've been given.

To put it simply, our system should promote, not frustrate the quality of our work. This is not an unimportant part of our pattern of study, and its influence is never neutral. Get it right and we can find ourselves with an abundance of insightful ideas that are genuinely our own. Get it wrong and our work struggles to rise above the mundane and imitative.

So, think about carrying a notebook, keeping a journal, running an index card system, and using a project box.

For more advice, see referencing and plagiarism and writing skills.

This content has been written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays.