Before you start to write, you need to know that what you're saying is true...

1. Research basics

Research is a crucial part of the essay writing process for university. All of your points need to be backed up by some kind of evidence – be it someone who has done the same experiment as you, some literature explaining a connection that you are also trying to make, or a quotation to prove something in your work. Evidence is necessary to show that you know what you are talking about, and to show that your points aren’t just made up, but that they have some real grounding in academic research that has already been done.

With research also comes something to avoid at all costs – plagiarism. This is the copying of another person’s words or ideas without properly referencing the source, and penalties at most universities for plagiarism are severe. For this reason, you should always take note of where you get your information from, and always reference properly using the system that your university approves!

2. Finding a topic

It can be confusing to know where to start when you have no idea what you want to write about. If you know what you want to write, then first make a plan using the information on this page, then come back to the research section when you’ve made an outline.

If you don’t know what you want to write about, start browsing websites and find some ideas relating to topics that interest you. It may be the case that you never find the “perfect” topic, and for some assignments you just have to go with what seems best for the situation! Use the ideas you find to form your own research question, and remember to note down the sources you are using, as they may be useful when you come to write.

If you’re really stuck, try to think back to some of the questions that you had during the lectures. Was there anything that you didn’t understand or wanted to know more about? These things are generally perfect for essays, as they allow you to answer a real question that you have about the topic.

3. Collecting information and finding sources

Once you know what your topic and research question is, you can now collect the relevant information which will enable you to write the essay itself. You won’t normally know the answer to your question before you’ve written the essay – part of the process is doing some research and forming your own answer.

There are many places you can go to find information. The first place you should be looking is the university library. Here you will find many trusted and reputable sources where you can find information to help you write your essay. Once you’ve found books that you think will be helpful, look at their indices to find where your topic comes up, and read the relevant chapters to see if they are useful. If the book is irrelevant, try another one! This is part of the research process, and you won’t always find good information in every book you try. Mark the pages containing useful information if you can keep the book, or write down the important information/quotations, remembering to note the source information as well!

The second place you can try is online sources. I don’t think it’s necessary to mention that you need to take a lot of care in recognising whether your source is trustworthy, and thus whether you can use it in your essay.

Here are some things to look for to identify trustworthy sources online:

  1. What is the format of the source? Does it have a title, sections (introduction, conclusion), bibliography? Is it
  2. Who is the author? What qualifications do they have, how many other publications do they have, and who are they affiliated with?
  3. Who is publishing the source? What possible biases could be introduced by this source? Do they have many publications?
  4. Are there many linked sources for the article? Do they seem reputable as well?

If you’re paying attention to the style and format of the sources you find, then you’re likely to spot when something isn’t academic. It is okay to use non-academic sources, but you need to make sure you aren’t using these to back up substantial points.

One of the best ways to make sure your sources are likely to be reliable is to use a bibliography or indexed search engine specific to your research domain.

4. Collating the information

There’s many things you can do once you have a load of papers, websites and books that are relevant to the topic that you’re going to write about. How do you find the most important information, and make sure that that’s what you include in your essay?

  • It’s best to find the relevant chapters or sections of the source you’ve found, so you don’t waste time reading things that aren’t relevant. Check the contents page, the index, or the introduction to see what sections are likely to be most relevant, and just read those.
  • Secondly, highlight as you go. You’re not trying to learn all the material right now, but just pick out the bits that are useful to your essay. Find the things that you could use, the main points that the author makes, and any quotations that you could use to back up some of the points that you’re making, or that you can argue against if your essay requires it.
  • Don’t forget about the primary text, if there is one! Any essay you write about a particular text should focus on that text, and be closely aligned to the arguments made by that particular author.
  • Once you’ve highlighted and found the most relevant information, start to work it into your plan, making lists of useful things, quotes which fit with the points you want to make, and even styles or ways of arguing points that spark your interest!