The Research Essay: 10 Tips for Success

Originally compiled for FNIS 220

These tips are for students researching creative works (e.g. poetry, novels, film, visual art, video games) in the field of Indigenous studies.

After selecting your primary text (e.g. This Wound is a World, “Welcome to your authentic Indigenous experience,” A Red Girl’s Reasoning, etc.) you should:

1) Brainstorm a research question: what do you want to ask of the text? What are you hoping to find out? It’s best practice to generate at least three research questions before you decide on one. An example of a workable research question in this context is, “how does the genre of science-fiction in The Cave facilitate Helen Haig-Brown’s remediation of a traditional Tsilhqot’in story.”

2) Read, re-read, and re-re-read: Now that you have a question in mind, re-read (or re-watch, or re-play) the text carefully with a pencil in hand. Take detailed notes. Look for patterns, incongruities, things that jump out at you, things that you think might help you address your question. You will need specifics from the text to serve as evidence for your thesis, so use sticky notes or jot down pages numbers so it’s easy to find.

Now read it again.

The more detail you can provide in this essay the better, so be attentive to specifics. If you are working with a film, you’ll want to jot down time signatures so you know where specific events occur. If you are working with a video game, take screenshots.

3) Gather support: Once you have a research question and some potential evidence to address it, it’s time to start looking for secondary sources. Generally, you should be looking for sources that you think will help to further unpack your ideas and add nuance and rigour to your argument. You also want to demonstrate that you are a learned contributor to an academic conversation.

Break your research question down into keywords (single words specific to your topic) and use a library search engine to locate relevant sources.

UBC library has a resource specifically developed for research in Indigenous Studies.

There are two ways of approaching research.

  1. Look at articles that contend with the same, or a similar, primary source you are examining, or
  2. Look at articles that contend with the same or similar themes you hope to address. For instance, if you were addressing the Haig-Brown question posed above, you might do a search for articles on or interviews with the filmmaker and/or articles that contend with Indigenous science-fiction.

Most importantly, however, is to ensure that the secondary source fits with your research question. Tangential secondary sources will make the writing harder and/or lead to scattered paragraphs and flimsy transitions.

4) Prepare your sources: Like your primary text, read your secondary sources carefully and take good notes. You will need to cite directly from your sources, so be on the lookout for quotations that you think would be particularly effective in adding to your case.

5) Crafting a thesis statement: Now that you have a research question and evidence from primary and secondary sources, it’s time to start crafting a thesis statement. The thesis statement is the most important part of your essay, so proceed carefully here. Think of your thesis statement as a means to answer your research question. A good thesis statement clearly and succinctly states your specific intervention into a topic. It should tell your reader what your paper is about and help you to keep your argument focused.

A good thesis statement does not have to be one sentence, but it should probably be no more than 3 and it should come very early on in the paper, usually within the first paragraph.

Like the research question, it is best practice to brainstorm at least three potential theses before deciding on one. Bear in mind that your thesis statement might change as you write your essay. DO NOT PANIC. Good writers are always adjusting their theses.

My advice is always to go back to your thesis after the essay is complete to check it against the conclusion. Have you followed the course you set out on? Does the thesis line-up with your conclusions? If not, you need to adjust.

6) Start building: This means different things for different people. Some like to write an outline, some storyboard their ideas or draw out a flow chart. Some just start writing. Finding what option works best for you is part of learning to write. Whatever option you take, however, DO NOT think you have to adhere to a 5-paragraph model. In fact, I recommend against it. Your essay must have an introduction and a conclusion, but how many paragraphs fall in between those depends on your writing style and the argument you are developing.

DO NOT, however, submit an essay that is just one block of text. Paragraphs illustrate to the reader how you are organizing your ideas. DO craft careful transition and topic sentences and think about how each paragraph supports your thesis.

7) Proofread:Once you have completed a draft PROOFREAD. I cannot stress this enough. Proofreading is often the difference in a letter grade. When proofreading, you should not only be checking for typos and technical error, you should also be reading for logic and cohesion of argument. In proofreading, you might realize that your argument makes a lot more sense if you swap paragraph two with paragraph four. You might find that the thesis you were actually looking for came out in your conclusion. Writing tells you things about your ideas that your ideas on their own can never tell you. Read your own work! You owe it to yourself!

8) Title your paper: I always tell students to title their papers last because that is when you’ll have the best sense of what your paper is about. The title is your reader’s first gateway into your ideas, so choose it carefully and make sure it reflects the content of your argument. DO NOT title your essay “Research Essay.” You will automatically lose 5 points.

9) Cite your sources: On a separate page, which does not count towards your final page count, list your works cited in MLA style. Include all sources, primary and secondary. Do not “pad” your works cited. That is, do not include sources that you do not cite in the essay.

For this assignment, your works cited should include the proper MLA citation as well as a brief description of where you found the source

10) PROOFREAD AGAIN! Print your essay out and read it over carefully (preferably aloud) with a pen in hand. On this second read, you should be looking for typos and grammatical/syntactical errors. Check your citations for formatting and take one last look at your thesis and topic sentences.

At any point in the writing process consider taking a draft to the UBC learning Commons. They offer one-on-one writing workshops and friendly advice on composing academic prose. https://learningcommons.ubc.ca/improve-your-writing/

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