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It’s All About Careful Planning
Writing a thesis, research paper, dissertation, capstone project, autobiography, annotated bibliography or a simple essay begins with very careful planning. Once you have come up with an essay topic, you will often need to make sure that it is clearly communicated using academic writing. You need to take a position on your essay topic.
An essay doesn’t just repeat information or other people's opinions; it takes a stand on issues and scholarly challenges without claiming to have found the final or only answer. A good college or university essay, research project or thesis needs to work out a fairly multifaceted position and then explain and defend it.
In the early stages of your planning work, it is a smart idea to write down in one or two sentences the specific question about your topic that you want to explore. You can also plan out your hypothesis or initial answer to the essay question that you have posed as soon as you have one in mind.
Academic research tends to build on itself over time, because scholars produce original work that goes beyond the work already done by others. This means that there is an ongoing discussion of ideas between academic researchers in order to clarify their presentation of their results. Before you address what is going on in this discussion about your chosen essay topic, you will need to have a sense of what others have already said about it.
What this means is that it is important to look at background information before researching the scholarly literature. You can achieve this goal by revisiting your course textbooks and your lecture notes, and perhaps by consulting some reference texts, popular books or websites on the subject. Just keep in mind that these are just starting points and should not appear in your reference list.
Reading your course textbooks will give you a sense of the scholarly discussion on your topic. Once you have read some background information, you need to scan it for ideas, including points of contention and unanswered questions within that particular discipline. This means that you may have to read these documents more than once. Start by skimming to see what arguments are popular and what kinds of ideas and information it contains. Then look through your texts more thoroughly several times to make notes about the issues it focuses on and the questions it suggests. This will provide you with a foundation for researching scholarly journals, where you will get most of your information.
A good place to start is the reference list of your course reading list. This list can help you find leading authors in your field, as narrowed down by your instructor. In addition, use your university or college library databases in order to find more recent items. It is important to pick the kinds of sources that address the ideas you want to investigate, not just the first few papers on the topic that come up in a search.
Sometimes, in order to make sure that you have the right materials, it pays to spend time going to a library instruction workshop at your university.
Remember, you need time to read your chosen sources meticulously and critically. Examine authors’ specific arguments and viewpoints so that you can decide whether or not you will choose to agree with them in your essay. Finally, read scholarly papers to refine your own ideas and to investigate out your thesis point. Ensure that you are able to refer to ideas and arguments other than your own, and enhance your work by summarizing scholars’ points of view.
Fine-tuning your essay or term paper
Once you have narrowed down your essay or term paper topic, you need to investigate the library catalogue and online databases like Google Scholar in order to search for further relevant sources. This can include scholarly books, which are known as monographs, and journal articles.
As you read and think more, and as you draft the body of your essay, be ready to revise and clarify these statements. Your work will require you to refine your ideas and your position, which means that you may shift your ideas radically from your starting points. This may require you to rewrite your essay idea from scratch. You will probably need to look at the ideas that you have developed for your introductory paragraph of your essay again, so that you can ensure that your concluding paragraphs reflect these ideas clearly.
Mistakes in planning your essay thesis
Key errors many learners make when planning an essay, research paper, dissertation or thesis are often linked to poor planning.
Two major problems are:
1. You have an idea for a study you want to do before you begin to do a literature search.
2. You have an idea for a specific group of people you want to study.
The study you propose must be designed to address the specific gap in the literature that you identify. First, you must do a literature review, then you define a problem; only then can you design a study. If you have an idea for a study you want to do, set aside the idea and do an extensive literature review to find a problem. There may or may not be a real problem that the study you want to do addresses. For example, someone might have already done your study. To define a real gap in a body of research literature, you must first do an extensive literature search. You cannot “work backwards” from a study to a problem.
While it may feel important to study a particular idea or group of people you are familiar with or care about, you must understand that you identify the participants in your study as part of your study design, which is developed only after you review literature and define a problem. Again, review the literature and find a problem, then design a study to address the problem. If you propose a quantitative study, you will have to do an analysis to determine your sample size.
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