Part One: Organising your Research using a Research Document
This article is part of the series ‘How to Write Distinction Essays Every Time: The Six Steps to Academic Essay Writing’. One article in this series will be published on the Elite Editing blog each day this week. You can also access them through the Elite Editing website at http://www.eliteediting.com.au
Do you ever have any of these problems?
Have you ever started to write an essay and found that you were staring at a blank screen and a flashing cursor? Did you feel like you were starting from scratch?
Have you ever started writing an essay and found that you could not remember some of the information you read? Or tried to put a reference in and could not find the page number of the quotation you were using?
Is your research usually scattered all over the place, in the form of books, photocopied pages, bookmarked websites and some notes? Do you find it hard to create an essay out of disorganised research?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then learning how to create and use a research document can help! If you organise and record your research properly, you should never have any of these problems again.
How can you organise your research?
Your research should be organised so that the transition from doing your research to writing your essay is simple. The best way to do this is to organise your research so that it matches the organisation of the essay. In Step 2 of writing an academic essay, you would have written a rough essay plan before you began your research. This essay plan is the guide you need to use to organise your research.
Copy and paste this essay plan into a Word document. All your research for this essay will be recorded in this one document. Use each of the dot points from your essay plan (topics you are planning to discuss) as a heading in your research document. When you do your research, you will organise it in the order that the information will appear in your essay. Doing this means you will be organising your research by theme or topic, not by source.
This means that you will not simply record all the information from one source together and then go on to type up the information from your next source underneath it. If you do things that way, you would need to go back and re-organise your research later, into the correct order for your essay. That would be a waste of your time.
Why should you record your research (instead of just reading or taking a few notes)?
If you do not record your research properly, you can spend hours, days or weeks doing research, and then when you start to write your essay you will find that you have to go back and re-do things, like search for page numbers or correct quotations. You must record your research in a way that makes essay writing easier for you. It should be accurate, include all the information you need, and give you a chance to record your own ideas and thoughts on the material you are reading as you go along. Do not leave this until the end.
Instead of just taking notes when researching, a better and more efficient way to research is to critically arrange and organise material by typing out all the important information you find. You do not need to type out everything, just the critical, relevant and important information for your essay. Then you can add your own notes. (Make sure you use punctuation marks so you can see what is a quotation and what are your own words.)
There are a few important reasons for why it is better to type out sources word for word in your research rather than only take notes.
1. You do not have to remember everything you have written, all the important material is written down.
2. When you begin writing your essay you will have all information you need to make accurate direct quotations.
3. You will not make the mistake of writing something in your essay that you think you have thought of yourself, but is in fact something you are remembering from a book word-for-word.
4. You still have the opportunity to write your own notes about the sources as you go along, and develop your own ideas. But you will do this in a way that makes it clear what is from the book, and what are your own ideas.
How should you record your research?
You must record the following information from your sources:
1. Reference information about the source you are using
2. The subject or topic of each paragraph you type out (to help organise your ideas)
3. The exact wording of the source (using punctuation marks to show you are quoting)
4. The page number of the information you are typing up
5. Your own ideas and thoughts about the material you are reading
While you are doing all this, you can be working on your reference list at the same time. Each time you begin reading a source, type up all reference information into your reference list straight away. One good way of setting out your research is as follows:
The topic/subject of the paragraph
‘The exact wording of the source/paragraph that you are typing up goes here, using punctuation marks so you can see that you are quoting’ (Put the reference information here, the way you would in an in-text reference: Surname, Year, Page number).
[Your notes and ideas go here. Your own words go in square brackets and do not have punctuation marks, so you can easily see what are your own words and what words come from the source.]
So for example:
The number of people killed during the Spanish Civil War
‘The number of people killed during the Spanish Civil War is very difficult to ascertain. It was probably over one million people. Many people went “missing” and were never found’ (Nash, 1989, p. 61).
[This is very interesting information since it shows that the number of people killed could be much higher than was originally thought.]
How can you develop your essay plan while you are researching?
All the decisions about what will go into your essay and in what order are made at the research stage, not at the essay writing stage. This is a common mistake made by students who do not establish enough of a connection between the two stages.
At the beginning of your research, you started out with your rough essay plan as a basis for the headings in your research document. As you go along, you may add more headings or sub-headings to your research document. For example, you might find that there are three sub-topics under the first main topic that you wish to discuss, and so you will create sub-headings for them. The information under these sub-headings will eventually become paragraphs in your essay.
As you conduct your research, you must critically analyse the information that you find. Change your sections around in order of importance. Decide what information should be included and what should not. All these decisions should be made at the research stage, so that by the time you come to do your writing you know exactly what you will be writing about and in what order, down to each paragraph. You will have in front of you exactly what information needs to be used in each section and paragraph of your essay. This also means that you will never feel like you are starting from scratch or have nothing to go on when you begin writing your first draft.
The next article in this series is Part Two of this article: ‘Research Skills and Academic Sources’.
This article (and the remainder in the series) has been written by Dr Lisa Lines, the Director and Head Editor of Elite Editing. If you require further assistance with essay writing or with the professional editing of your completed essay, please contact her through the Elite Editing website at www.eliteediting.com.au/contact-us.aspx.
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