How to Do Good Research
Research is the foundation for many types of academic essays, and it can be difficult to write a good essay without a good foundation. Research takes time and effort, and it will probably take up a significant portion of the time you spend working on your assignment. Doing thorough research will make your essay stronger and will even make writing easier.
Writing a strong research paper takes more than grabbing quotes from random sources and scattering them throughout your essay. Whatever you are writing, you need to be informed and able to use your knowledge within the context of your thesis. Even if you already know a lot about your subject, you need to be able to back that up with good sources, and you may even learn something new in the process. Taking a few simple steps can make sure your research is well done and that you know how to use it well.
Step One: Find reliable authors.
While the quantity of your research matters, the quality is the most important part. Sources like blogs, social media, YouTube videos, or Wikipedia articles are usually not reliable sources. This isn’t a concrete rule; a video of a TED talk, for example, or a tweet from the President may be an important source for your paper. But as a general rule of thumb, sources from “regular” people without credentials or academic backing aren’t suitable to use in a proper essay.
To find suitable sources, look for officially published and peer reviewed authors. JSTOR is an online resource that lets you sort and search through a database of academic books and articles to find what you need. The computers on most college campuses have free access to JSTOR. Most commercially published books are also good sources, and they are usually easy to find in your local library or online. Other options include academic websites, major newspapers and news stations, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. One less conventional way to find sources is to visit the Wikipedia page connected to your subject and go down to the “References” section. This section will list all of the sources Wikipedia contributors used to write their article, and can often contain reputable sources that you can explore.
Step Two: Collect plenty of sources.
You may be tempted to find exactly as many sources as you think you need, or as many as are required by your assignment rubric, and then move on to writing. Especially if you are short on time, doing research can seem much less important than writing the essay itself. However, writing an essay with incomplete research will not only be more difficult, it will also weaken your arguments. A much better approach is to actually gather more sources than you think you need so that you have plenty to choose from.
If you write an annotated bibliography as a part of your assignment, you may already be on track to do this. For an annotated bibliography, you pick a large number of sources that you think that you might use so that you can read them and take notes. From there you decide which of those sources are most useful and will make it into your final essay. Even if it isn’t part of your assignment, this is a very good practice to maintain. Collect as many sources as you can so that when you’re writing you have plenty of choices and can make the best decisions about what will fit within the scope of your paper.
Step Three: Don’t throw anything away.
When you’re collecting a lot of sources, you will probably find some that are less useful and some that are more useful. While your instinct may be to get rid of the less useful resources, this can cause difficulties down the line. You may recall a great fact or quote you found but that you discarded the source for, and you won’t be able to include that fact in your essay or will have to spend hours backtracking to find it. To prevent this, you can try keeping a casual list of links and titles on hand.
A good general rule to follow is that if you read a source, write it down. Try keeping an extra word document open that you fill with all the sources you check, even the ones you mostly pass over. You don’t necessarily need to record and format all of them for your bibliography, you just need to keep them on hand. Not only will this allow you to find everything you’ve read and learned over the course of writing the essay, it will also give you backup sources in case you find that you need more or different sources for some reason.
Step Four: Get familiar with your information.
Just collecting sources and writing them down isn’t enough. When you’re pressed for time or when you already know what you want to write, you may think that you don’t need to read your research and you can just skim through for quotes you want to use. However, this can cause you to have an incomplete understanding of your subject and your individual sources. By not reading, you risk accidentally writing incorrect information in the original portions of your essay or using your direct quotes in ways that contradict the author’s meaning.
Reading each piece you want to cite is quicker and easier than it seems. When you first discover a source and decide you want to use it, take an extra few minutes to read through it and get an idea of the piece. Take notes if this will help you, and record them wherever you keep your index of sources. It’s important to have a strong understanding of the piece before you decide where and how to use it. By taking this time in small chunks as you do your research, you prevent a situation in which you might feel the need to marathon a number of sources at the last minute.
Step Five: Be open to new opinions.
Over the course of collecting and reading your information, you will probably come across opinions and theories that contradict your own. If you’re writing an analysis or an argumentative piece, your first instinct may be to ignore the contradictory sources and move on. However, investigating and considering other interpretations can help you gain a stronger understanding of your subject. This may help you strengthen your own argument, or it may even cause you to change your mind.
Knowing opposing arguments thoroughly can allow you to compare them to your own points and dispute them in your essay. You can point out the flaws in the opposition and provide better alternatives, and sometimes you can find flaws in your own logic and work on how to fix them. On the other hand, exploring other opinions may help you think in new ways and decide that you want to take a different route with your thesis. Most essays don’t have restrictions on what you should argue about your subject, so there’s no harm in changing what your thesis says as long as you follow through with updating the rest of the essay.
When working on an essay, it’s easy to lose track of your research in favor of just writing. However, it’s important to remember that your writing is dependent on your research, and that better research will make for better and easier writing. If you do your best research, this will always help you write your best essay. Good luck!