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Research skills: finding and evaluating information for essays and theses: Home

This guide gives an outline of the key skills needed for researching a subject, from identifying and developing a topic to finding and evaluating information for essays and theses. It also includes advice on writing your essay, assignment or thesis.

From start to finish - the steps of writing a research paper

This guide, Writing a Research Paper,  from The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin, outlines the stages involved in writing a library based essay or research paper. It outlines a lot of the areas that are covered in detail elsewhere on our web guide: it is an excellent place to start for an overview of the key steps in the process of writing an essay, from start to finish.


The steps of researching and writing an essay or thesis

The steps of researching a subject or topic, and ultimately writing an essay or thesis, are outlined in this guide under the following headings:

  • Identifying and developing a subject for an assignment or research area.
  • Finding information.
  • Evaluating information sources.
  • Writing essays and theses.
  • Citations, referencing and avoiding plagiarism.

Where you have been given a specific topic or essay question then you can begin what the Pre-writing process.


Examine your title/question carefully. Be very clear about what you are being asked: if the question is on the causes of divorce, don’t get stuck into the consequences; if you are asked to evaluate something, don’t spend pages just describing it. It may help at this stage to paraphrase the question carefully into your own words so you are very clear what you have to do.

Mind map your topic. Start with what you already know on the subject and work outwards from there. You may feel you have too many ideas or too few. In either case,  start by getting something on to paper. Mind mapping is a simple but very effective technique which can help you start to get ideas down and connected without having to worry about putting them in order yet.

Write your topic in the centre of a blank page. From there draw branches going outwards with all the ideas relating to the main topic. Then branch out further with ideas relating to your sub-topics. Use colour and small doodles to make the map more attractive. You can then use the mind map to start making a plan for your essay. Below is one example of a mind map. Look up further examples online to get an idea of how they can work.

Make an outline plan. Put the ideas from your mind map into an an order that makes sense. You may need to change your plan as you learn more but it is important to have a plan showing a logical development of your argument. It may help to write your different topics on sticky notes so that you can move them around and try them in different orders and combinations. The plan will also help you keep to your word count as you will quickly be able to see if sections are too short or too long.

Do reading and research. See the section on Reading (page 13). Also, bear in mind:

Select your readings carefully focusing on your title. Don’t get caught in vaguely related material.

Read critically – ask what the author is trying to do, what their attitude to the subject is and how they use evidence to support their view.

Keep careful notes including your own responses to the text.

Record your sources as you go – don’t waste time hunting for referencing information later.

Feel confused? Don’t panic. This is normal and a sign that you are becoming aware of the complexity of the subject. Make sure that you take real breaks from hard thinking during this time. It often happens that insights arise while the mind is resting.

Add to or revise your plan based on your reading.


Now you can begin to actually write.

(ITT Study Skills Guide)



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