Research Essays

Last updated February 4th, 2013

What is a Research Essay?

A research essay is an essay with a specific purpose – to argue a point, to reveal some less-known aspects of a topic, to persuade, to analyze, to explain. A research essay:

  • is not a report. A report is a work that reflects what is known about a topic.
  • goes beyond personal knowledge and experience. The essay explores a thesis.
  • takes an active role in shaping and being shaped by the information you encounter. Evaluate, judge, interpret, analyze, and research from a variety of sources.

What is Your Overall Aim?

Put emphasis where it belongs – on the validity and quality of your research in proving or disproving a thesis, rather than on your personal views. Be objective - you should recognize the need to verify your own ideas against those of others who may have more knowledge on the subject. Be authoritative - become an expert.

Types of Research

  • Primary Research: the study of a subject through first-hand observation & investigation (Primary Source: a literary text)
  • Secondary Research: the examination of studies (essays, reports, criticisms) that other researchers have made on a subject (i.e. books & articles about a literary work)

Using Secondary Sources

  • Your research will either confirm or challenge your own ideas and opinions. (Look for resources that provide information that will lend authority to your own ideas – do not lose your voice!)
  • Do NOT merely review or summarize the research of others.
  • Do NOT just integrate a series of quotations; show that you’ve thought critically.

Presenting Your Findings

  • Present your ideas and information clearly and effectively in a well-written, well-planned essay.
  • do not let the process of gathering sources, taking notes, and documenting sources make you forget to apply good essay-writing skills.
  • use the “5-paragraph” model, but do not limit yourself to 5-paragraphs.

Steps in the Process:

  1. After choosing your book(s), select a suitable topic
  2. Conduct your research
  3. Compile a “Working Bibliography”
  4. Read actively and take good notes
  5. Outline & draft the paper

Making the Most of a Topic

  • You can find an interesting angle on almost any subject if you are open to the possibilities.
  • Ask yourself questions such as… What images or ideas really strike me in this text? What literary devices have been used to enhance my understanding of the story and its themes?
  • Consider: What can you contribute to the research on your subject?
  • You might want to examine your text from a theoretical framework:
    • Theoretical Framework:
    • Add depth to your argument by applying a theory. For example, D.H. Lawrence’s famous story, “The Rocking Horse Winner” could be studied from a Marxist, Freudian, Feminist, or Magic Realist perspective. To do this, you would need to learn about the literary theory; then prove how the theory applies to the text.

Strategies for Gathering & Organizing Ideas

Gather and reflect on your ideas about the text. This will help you narrow your subject.

  • Write in a journal (use the journalist’s questions)
  • Free-write
  • Brainstorm & Mind Map
  • Make Notes (only if you own the book!)
  • Re-read, Think, Reflect

Narrowing Your Topic

  • Whether you choose to study one book or two, you must identify a specific component of the text(s) that is interesting, challenging, or unique.
  • Remember this is a persuasive essay, you need something to prove and it better be interesting! Avoid merely discussing the symbolism, the character development, or the stylistic devices.
  • Do not just write about the differences between Boy Staunton and Dunstan Ramsey in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, but provide a “basis for comparison” (i.e. why is coming to an understanding of these differences crucial to the reader’s appreciation of the text?)
  • Furthermore, do not just discuss the use of flower imagery and symbolism in Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel unless you have something to prove! Think about why she uses it? What is the effect on the story or the reader?
  • Strive for originality! Proving that Orwell’s 1984 is comparable to Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale because both texts highlight dystopian values is not original! Choosing topics that have been ‘done to death’ can leave you drowning in piles of research information or worse – it can lead to plagiarism!

You must:

  • Look beneath the surface of the text, and highlight its strengths and/or weaknesses (think first and then research!)
  • Remember your purpose. Do not ramble!
  • Organize your thoughts carefully & use your time wisely.
  • Think your topic through before you rush in and get too deeply involved in a weak thesis that will lead you nowhere. Avoid topics so narrow that they give you little to say.
  • Use the “mind-map” technique to help you focus and discover related sub-topics.
  • Make sure that you can think of ample support to complement your main ideas.

Steps for Shaping & Organizing Ideas

  • Develop a working thesis
  • Research
  • Re-read your notes
  • Create an “Outline” (organize ideas from general to specific, most important to least)
  • Draft

Managing Sources

  • Ensure that you are using “authoritative sources”
    • Academic journal articles are usually better than magazines because journal articles are written by experts and are subject to peer review.
    • Look for often cited authors–those considered the best in the field.
  • Take quality notes. At the top of your notes write down any bibliographical information on the source (author, editor, title, publication date, place, volume number, edition, pages).
  • Avoid plagiarism! – use quotations marks around borrowed language, maintain page numbers down the margin of your notebook.

Note-Taking Skills:

Be accurate, thorough, and concise!

  • Take notes on regular paper or index cards
  • Use the computer (may save time and improve accuracy)
  • Write down the author’s full name & the complete title (then record all publication info either at the top of your notes or in a “working bibliography”)
  • Record page numbers
  • Three forms of note-taking (all of which require proper documentation):
    • Summary, Paraphrase, Quotation