How Not/To Approach a Research Essay

How Not to Approach a Research Essay

person sitting in a cafe booth using a laptop

You know you have to do research. You can choose your own topic, and you decide you’re interested in finding out more about juvenile diabetes, since your niece was just diagnosed with this disease. You go online to Wikipedia and to many other sources, read a lot about juvenile diabetes, and after a couple hours’ worth of reading, you feel that you know quite a bit about the condition. The information you learned falls into four main categories: causes, effects, treatments, and supports for patients. So you decide you have enough for a research essay and start developing a unit of support for each category based on what you remember from the sources, until you have a 5-page essay drafted. You list all of your sources that you read at the end of the essay, even though you may or may not have used some of their concepts in the essay.  You then add a title: Juvenile Diabetes.

What’s wrong with this approach? A number of major things:

  • No thesis with an angle or assertion about the topic; you’ve written broadly about a topic, including information about causes, effects, treatments, and supports for patients. You’ve provided a lot of information, but have not offered your own focused insight or argument about that topic. The essay has a very wide range of information and little to none of your own thoughts.  A more fruitful approach might have been to focus more in depth on one of the categories of information, and to create a thesis with an angle offering an assertion about that focused topic.
  • No careful citation within the draft of the essay of which specific information came from which source.
  • No care at the end of the essay to list only those sources whose information you actually used in the essay.
  • No evaluation of sources’ quality – you just used whatever you found.

Just from this short example, you get the idea that research writing requires a careful approach to ensure that you have a thesis with an angle or assertion, that the thesis is not too broad or too narrow, that you are precise in your use of sources, and that you evaluate the quality of the information that you find to determine whether to use it in your essay.

It’s absolutely o.k. to do wide-ranging research and reading as a preliminary step in doing research. But just note that this is definitely a preliminary step, simply to gather more information so that you can create your own argument or insight.

How To Approach a Research Essay

It’s important to keep in mind that research writing does not simply involve linking a series of quotations or pieces of source information together.

So approach a research essay planfully, as you would approach writing a logical argument essay offering your insight into an issue.  It’s useful if you can draft a working thesis and jot down some of your own supporting ideas first, so that you can do more focused research.

person looking at books on library shelf

If you’re writing a research essay on an assigned topic, and don’t have any insight into or knowledge about that topic, then you may want to do some general research first, so that you can develop your own ideas in order to create a working thesis. Or if you’ve chosen a topic that you have some ideas about, then preliminary research is still useful to make sure that you have a topic that you can actually research, one for which there is enough appropriate source information to help you formulate a strong working thesis. Never confuse this preliminary research with the more focused research you’ll need to do to support your own ideas.

If you remember that a research essay is, first of all, an essay, and approach it as that, you will greatly help your own research essay process.

important example

Research essays require researched support for claims in the essay; you’ll notice that the word claim is italicized to make it stand out and emphasize its importance.

It’s easy to fall into a trap when doing research.  That trap is that you find sources that deal with your topic, but not your claims about the topic.

For example, there are many student essays that are similar to the following:

  • Introduction leading to the thesis assertion/claim, which is the following: The federal government should regularize voting laws in each state to provide equal, easy access to voting for all U.S. citizens.
  • First unit of support, with 2 paragraphs, provides researched historical background on voting in the U.S.
  • Next unit of support, with 2 paragraphs, provides researched information on some of the variety in states’ voting laws.
  • The last three units of support provide the supporting claims/topic sentences, with very little research.

What’s wrong here is that the research all goes into background and not into supporting the actual claims.  Make sure that your research in a research essay supports and lends credibility to your main thesis assertion/claim, and your topic sentence assertions/claims.