Acing the research essay

Deb Diller, Librarian

The research essay. A common and often dreaded college assignment. It requires focused inquiry and research, an understanding of the scholar’s point of view and a thoughtful expression of your perspective on the topic. That’s why instructors use it. It requires planning, time and real effort to do well. That’s why many students dread it.

Thank goodness you’re not in this alone. The Madison College librarians are ready to help with the challenge. We’ve been there, and know the strategies to make the process clear, doable, and even fun.

Here are two tips to get you started:

Topic: Whether your instructor provides a topic list or gives general guidelines, you can assume that your topic is probably too broad. A broad topic includes too much information to include in one essay. Broad topics make for superficial essays; you’ll say a lot about your topic, but it will be at a basic or survey level.

Narrowing your topic will allow you to dig deeper and cover your issue in depth. You narrow it by choosing to write on only one part of the topic, not all of it. You might have to do some background reading and research on your area of interest to determine aspects of the topic that are controversial or need investigation. Then focus on one aspect of interest instead of the entire topic.

For example, you might consider writing about the effects on the country from the September 11 attacks. That broad topic would provide a lot of material, but you would only be able to discuss it in general terms. A more focused, subset on that topic might be: The Department of Homeland security was created in response to the attacks on Sept 11 to make us safer. Has it? Did you notice the topic turned into a question? “Has the Department of Homeland Security made us safer?”

As Zora Neale Hurston says in Dust Tracks on a Road, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Your research question becomes the purpose of your “poking and prying”. And the answers to that research question will become your research essay.

Brainstorm your research: This step doesn’t take a lot of time, but it is essential in making sure you use more of your own ideas in your essay and avoid wasting time in your research.

First, you need to identify what you know about the issues your research question raises. Then, you’ll need to list a series of questions you want your sources to answer. Taking the time for these two steps allows you to set the research agenda rather than being pulled along by persuasive arguments and interesting but not really on-topic ideas.

It is easy to get so caught up in the research that you lose sight of what you really need for your essay. Your job is to process the ideas you read, make them your own and then use them convincingly. That’s much easier to do if you’re clear about what you know and think about the subject.

Start your research process sooner, rather than later and discuss any questions with your librarian as you work the process. We look forward to seeing you, in person or online.