A research essay combines many of the skills learned from writing other types of essays. In a research essay, the writer must incorporate the ideas of others, analyzing and integrating information. A research essay may overlap with other essay types such as the literary analysis, the persuasive essay or the cause and effect essay, or it may be more straightforward such as a research essay on a historical event.
A tricky aspect of the research essay is that while outside sources are used, they must always be used in support of the writer’s ideas as opposed to replacing those ideas. This begins with the thesis statement. A thesis statement should never be a direct quote. In the course of doing research, the writer is likely to discover others who have similar ideas, but the thesis statement itself should be the writer’s thoughts stated in the writer’s own words.
Narrowing the Topic
In writing a research paper, it’s important to narrow the topic down and to know when to stop researching. Otherwise, the research can quickly become overwhelming. Rather than trying to write an entire research paper on the Civil War, for example, the writer may decide to focus on African American regiments. Research is best focused on recent work and on a few key books or articles on the topic. The most important books or articles can often be identified by noticing their recurrence in bibliographies or with the help of reference librarians.
Plagiarism is using others’ words or ideas without proper attribution, and it is a serious academic offense. Plagiarism can be avoided by taking good notes during research that indicate where information came from and whether or not it is directly quoted and by citing all research. Research may be used in essays either in the form of direct quotes or as summarized information or ideas. It’s important to remember that simply rearranging a few words is not enough of a change to avoid plagiarism. Information that can’t be summarized in a writer’s own words should be quoted directly.
Documenting and Citing Sources
There are many different citation styles for acknowledging work from outside sources. Most of them share the convention of placing quoted material in quotation marks and identifying the source by author name or title of the piece. The specific information needed and how it is presented, however, will depend on the citation style. The most common citation styles for academic writing are MLA style, which is most often used in the humanities, and APA style, which is generally used in the social sciences. Writers should follow the conventions of the citation style assigned.
In addition to writing well-organized paragraphs with clear topic sentences, the writer of the research essay will also need to think about how to integrate the research. Writers should avoid dropped quotes. This describes a quote that is simply dropped into writing without introduction. Quotes can be introduced by signal phrases such as “As Smith writes” or with a colon at the end of a complete sentence.
Whether the research used is in the form of a quote or summarized information, writers should think about using the information to support, develop or explain their ideas rather than replacing them. Outside research should always be introduced with the writer’s own thoughts and followed by an explanation that demonstrates how the quote or information supports the writer’s point. It may help to think of research as something that should always be sandwiched between a writer’s own words and ideas.
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