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How to Write an Essay

How to Write an Essay

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How to Write an Essay
Part 1 - Research
"When you take stuff from one writer it's plagiarism; but when you take it from many writers, it's research." 
-- Wilson Mizner (1876-1933)
Focus
There are those who say that before you can research or write, you must first choose a focus and stick to it.While that is good advice in some cases, there are times when your focus should change during the research process. For example, you might decide to write on a topic only to discover a more interesting, morerelevant, or more easily researched topic while trying to find materials on the original topic. For this reason,you should not submit aproposalfor an essay (if required) or otherwise make your focus concrete untilyou've done some preliminary research. That doesn't mean reading every book on the subject; rather, youshould ascertain what sort of materials are available on the subject at all. When you do your basic search,keep in mind the following indications:
If you find an endless supply of possible sources right away, your topic is too broad, and you'll haveto dig down into the subject more deeply to find a more suitable focus.
If you can't find any possible sources after a serious search, your topic may be too narrow or too new.While this could serve as an excellent topic for a thesis in that it provides opportunity for originalstudy, it is probably going to be inappropriate for an early-university or high school essay.
The Internet is a fabulous source of knowledge. It is also a fabulous source of utter nonsense. If all of your sources are Internet-based and you can't find any book sources, you have to seriously consider the validity of the subject matter for a university essay. Even cutting-edge technology has books andarticles available that describe the basics of the technology.
If all of the sources seem to be written by the same person or group of people, you must againseriously consider the validity of the topic. It might be too narrow, or it might be generated by'crackpots,' or it might be a great topic that has not been written about often enough. Discuss the topicwith your teacher/professor.
If you find a good source, search again under the author's name in case they have another useful book that you didn't find in the first search.Assuming you don't have any of the above problems in your preliminary research, you should now be readyto choose a focus for your essay. In your notes, come up with a brief focus statement to help guide yourself.This doesn't have to be grammatically perfect, and if you wish, it can be in the form of a question. The pointis to give yourself a guide by which to judge research as you find it. For example, here is a fake topic (don'tfret about what widget watching is, I just made it up):
Focus: The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching
o
Good sources:
Joe Smith: His Life and Times, by Sally Superwriter 
Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus
http://www.website.com/joesmith/widgetwatching.html
Article in Widgets Monthly: Joe Smith, Portrait of a Widget Watcher, by JeanDoorknocker 
o
Possible Sources:1
 
Widget Watchers in History, by Frank Diddledum (may or may not contain anythingabout Joe Smith)
Joe Smith's Studies in Moose Physiology, by Noreen Numpkin (may or may notcontain anything about widget watching, but since the essay is also on his life, theremight be good information here)
o
Bad Sources:
Great Widget Watchers of the 1950s, by Herbert Hogswatch
Prehistoric Widgets by Frank Diddledum
Jane Doe: A Widgetress' Life, by Sally Superwriter (unless she had
direct
influenceon Joe Smith, her information is probably irrelevant)
Article in Widgets Monthly: How to Spot a Widget at 500m, by Alfredo Frinkenhuven Notice how the value of the sources change when the focus changes:
Focus: Widget watching, what it is, how it has changed, who has contributed to it
 
o
Good sources:
Widget Watchers in History
Widget Watching in the Late 1800s
http://www.website.com/joesmith/widgetwatching.html
Great Widget Watchers of the 1950s
Prehistoric Widgets
o
Possible Sources:
Joe Smith: His Life and Times (only as it applies to widget watching)
Article in Widgets Monthly: Joe Smith, Portrait of a widget watcher (only as it appliesto Widget Watching)
Jane Doe: A Widgetress' Life (only as it applies to widget watching)
Article in Widgets Monthly: How to Spot a Widget at 500m (depending on thecontent)
o
Bad Sources:
Joe Smith's Studies in Moose Physiology Notice that because the topic broadened to cover all of widget watching, the number of good sourcesincreased.During your research, you may discover all kinds of interesting facts about related topics. In the exampleabove, you might have learned that Jane Doe was desperately but secretly in love with Joe Smith. But unlessthat love directly affected the field of widget watching, the information is irrelevant to the second focus. It isonly relevant to the first focus if it affected Joe Smith; so if he didn't know about it, it probably isn't relevant.You must stick to your focus in your writing, and avoid throwing in random factoids, regardless of howinteresting they may seem. Otherwise, the essay becomes too long and disjointed. It can be frustrating to notuse what seems to be a good bit of information, but unless you can work it into your focus well, you'll haveto learn to set such things aside.Of course, if a bit of interesting information fits the focus, by all means work it into the essay!
The Nitty-Gritty of Research
 Now that you have your focus and have selected a good set of sources, it's time to read and make notes. I'drecommend using paper with a margin, for reasons that will become apparent inPart 3. For the rest of these2
 
tips and instructions, let's assume that our focus is the first example, "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) andhow he contributed to the field of widget watching."Some sources will only have selected paragraphs, pages, or chapters that fit the focus, so manage your time by reading the relevant information first. If your personal interest in the topic drives you to read more later,that's great, but getting your essay finished on time is important. With general books, such as WidgetWatching in the Late 1800s, go through the chapter listing if there is one, and/or the index if there is one.Look for key items related to Joe Smith, such as his name or other elements. For example, Widget Watchingof the Late 1800s has no chapter on Joe Smith, but it does list the following in the index:
 New York Widget Watchers (and you know that Smith was from New York), pages 26-29, 49
Smith, Joe, pages 4, 26-29, 37, 49, 92-105
Widgetiscope (which you know Smith invented), pages 16, 93-94, 138You should check each listed page for Joe Smith in case it has useful information, but you can make aneducated guess that anything with multiple pages (26-29 and 92-105) will probably have more than justmention of his name. Also, by cross-referencing to other elements you know involve your focus, you canfind information that you might have otherwise missed, as in the extra pages on the widgetiscope. Chancesare, Smith's widgetiscope had an impact on widget watching, so information on it might fit your focus evenif it doesn't mention Smith's name each and every time.As you read through the sources and find useful information, write it down (or type it, if you're using acomputer) in your notes as completely as possible.
For every note that you write from a source,remember to include where you found the information so you can cite it properly later.
It's incrediblyfrustrating to be halfway through writing an essay and want to use a quotation you've noted but you can't because you didn't write down where you got the quotation from. You either have to flip through all thesources looking for it, or you can't use it because you'd be plagiarisingif you used it withoutattribution. A good way to make life easier for keeping track of which note is from what source is to keep a separatesheet (or set of sheets) or computer document for each source, and write out the full bibliographicinformation at the top of the sheet or source. Then just include the page number beside each note. Also, besure to put quotation marks around things you've quoted directly to make sure you don't confuse them withyour own paraphrasings later. For example:Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968
the widgetiscope was invented in 1891 in New York, page 16
"By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was thewidgetiscope." page 93
Phineas Goofius tried to claim he invented the widgetiscope, but Smith proved him a liar, page 94
the widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoringthe behaviour of the widget, page 138...and so forth down the page...You may find that some sources disagree with what other sources said. This does
not
invalidate a source. Asyou will see inPart 7, you can make your essay even stronger by playing sources off of one another. Youshould make your notes as complete as possible, noting anything that could be of use in the writing. It's3

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