The first step to a good essay is a “literature search”. The goal of this, whether conducted with the aid of an academic library or in the wild with “merely” the Internet to help, is two-fold:
- to get an overview of the topic and if you do not have a narrow topic set for you to identify a precise topic on which to write (see below)
- to begin collecting resources, useful resources are of two sorts:
- Simple overviews of a broad topic (we called them “Noddy guides” when I was young ;-) Articles on the topic in specialised dictionaries or encyclopedias are usually good possibilities.1 A good noddy guide will help you gain a broad context of what experts have said and are saying about the topic. It will also probably help you to identify a narrower topic within the broad topic which is subject to debate and so might make a good topic on which to write.2
- Specialist works you also need works written by specialists, often these are journal articles, but (in theology and biblical studies at least) will also include chapters from books3 focused on your narrow topic. As you search you should not read everything but glance through the works getting an idea what each is about. Gradually you will get a sense of which are the “best” works in the area, they are the ones that are mentioned in bibliographies and footnotes by other authors more often. They are the ones you will prioritise for reading later, and may be the only ones to reach the final bibliography for the essay – quality is usually better than qualtity in bibliographies.
Beginning to sketch out the field
The overview(s) you found should begin to give you an understanding of the topic and (hopefully) the issues that have been/are being debated in this area. At this stage one goal is to produce a provisional title for your essay. The title should (if you have a choice) should be short and identify a narrower area within the broad topic on which you will focus. (If you are working with a set title, unless the rubric demands that you offer a broad overview, you should create a private title that identifies the focus – within the official title – that you will give to your essay.
Draft summary and conclusion
When you have your defined area or issue to address try to write a first draft of a one paragraph (unless it is a long essay) summary of the relevant information or the sub-issues in dispute. This should suggest a provisional conclusion. (Usually in writing such a summary one side or other of the issue will seem weightier or more attractive.)
If significant things seem still really unclear you should read more.
Now revise your summary paragraph. The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.
This summary paragraph will provide the structure of your essay, and may provide also its opening. At this stage, indeed until the essay is finished, it is provisional and can be edited whenever you fins a need.
Researching the specialised works
At this stage you begin to read the specialised works you prioritised. While you may read short articles from start to finish any longer work should be read following the sort of process outlined here. Note taking will be covered in the next post.. Here it is sufficient to say that you should focus on getting information, arguments, and ideas that will help you fill out the sentences of your summary – so you are looking for material that relates to the special topics of each sentence.
Excursus: advice on Wikipedia and Internet resources
Wikipedia is often a useful place to start, but many scholars depreciate its use. Lack of expert editorial control may allow inaccuracies or ignorant bias in some articles. If you use Wikipedia as your first read do not cite it, but make sure that the information or ideas it gives you can be sourced from works of conventional scholarship. (This is not merely pandering to scholarly prejudice, but simple prudence, remember Wikipedia does not have expert editorial control and so is more likely to contain errors or serious bias without supporting arguments and evidence.) Because of ow Wikipedia is produced its articles are NOT usually useful in providing an outline for your essay (see above).
Other Internet material (not counting scholarly journals and books that you can access via Internet) should be treated with greater suspicion than material found in an academic library. Librarians act as filters removing works that lack scholarly quality (nb. this is more true of academic libraries and less true of public libraries). The Internet has no such selectivity, you can access any and all sorts of rubbish as well as works of real quality. If you use the Internet (including Google Books as it has little such filtering) you must assume responsibility for this selectivity for yourself. Look for works with a scholarly air. Signs to look for include:
- authors associated with reputable institutions (and who work in the field of study they write about)4 or who have a solid CV
- referencing – works that are referenced are more likely to be of solid worth
- arguments and evidence – works that simply state conclusions are of little value, scholarship NEVER rests on assertions of authority, but always on arguments and evidence
- balanced tone and relative avoiding evaluative language – the more a site expresses clear and strong opinions the less likely it is to be scholarly (there are exceptions but unless other more reputable sources agree do not assume you have found one – however much you agree with the author’s opinions).
- Encyclopedia articles are often too long to really serve, though they may have introductions that set the scene or conclusions that will work well. [↩]
- By and large the narrower a title you choose the better your essay, as long as sufficient has been written to give you the ideas, information and arguments that you will need. [↩]
- Sometimes indeed whole books. [↩]
- Many scholars in other disciplines have websites on institutional servers (with .edu or .ac domains) that discuss theological topics – treat these as you would contributions from the general public, a research nuclear physicist is no more likely to be a good theologian than an equaly intelligent bricklayer! [↩]