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Essay Research Primer

An introduction to essay research: how to find books and articles, search efficiently, evaluate sources, read effectively, take essay notes, structure your essay, and make sense of citation.

Understanding Your Assignment

Understanding what your professor wants is as crucial for your learning as a destination for a traveler. You may not have a map, you may not have a car, you may not have clean water, and you may not have any money, but if you know where you're going you at least have a chance of getting there. It's the same with assignments.

Here are 6 tips for getting a good grasp of what you've got to do---before you do it.

1. Go to your lectures and tutorials. Just attending and paying attention will give you a good idea--if not a lucid picture--of what professors expect you to accomplish to do well in their courses.

2. Read the assignment instructions and syllabus carefully. Most professors post these in Blackboard.

3. If you don't understand the written instructions in Blackboard or the verbal instructions in class, it's time to speak to a professor or TA face-to-face. Don't rely on your classmates: they might not understand either! Visit your professors during office hours and ask them to clarify their expectations.They are usually glad to have visitors--especially if you come early in the term.

4. If visiting your professor doesn't help, try showing her or him rough plan of your assignment and ask if you're on the right track.

5. Never underestimate the value of a scholarly encyclopedia; UofT buys lots of them--online and in print--for a reason: they're useful. Say you're writing a paper on the civil rights' movement in 1960s America. Well, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences has an article on the movement. Reading it will give you a reliable but accessible overview; key terms, themes, events and names; and--in most encyclopedias--a bibliography of sources you could use to follow up.

6. Ask librarians and writing instructors for help. We may not understand an assignment as well as the professor who wrote it, but we're familiar with academic assignments enough that we can usually offer sound advice.

Using an Encyclopedia

Most essay topics are broad. Professors normally expect you to narrow the topic yourself so you can write about something manageable in an essay. For example, The 1960s civil rights' movement in America is a huge topic. But a more focused, more interesting topic might be: The 19th Century origins of the 1961-1962 Albany Movement.

Before you can narrow a topic you need to know something about it. Not a lot—but enough to help you get started. Sometimes introductory lectures will do that, sometimes textbook chapters. Even Wikipedia—though you cannot rely on it—is a great place to start when you know nothing at all.

Try an Encyclopedia Here


(e.g. For "children in the Middle Ages" choose Medieval Studies; for "ritual and worship", choose Christianity or Religion).

Another tool to try is an encyclopedia. The UofT Libraries’ website has many subject-specific electronic encyclopedias you can explore at home. These are ideal for gaining confidence in the general topic; picking up key themes, names, and terms; and getting lists of recommended books and articles.

Narrowing a Topic

Once you have a good general grasp of your topic, it's time to focus. You can't write an essay on a topic that's too broad; otherwise, you'll have trouble making a clear, convincing argument.

Here are 3 ways you can narrow your topic. Often a combination is effective. Decide what works best for you!


1. Brainstorming

When brainstorming, write your broad topic in the middle of a blank page and then jot down anything related that occurs to you as fast as you can without judging its usefulness. You can look the sheet over afterwards for subtopics to follow up.

using categories

2. Using Categories

The idea behind categories is to have a ready-made template for narrowing almost any topic. Geography, events, significance, and time-period are easy ways to think of focusing on one that’s manageable.

concept mapping

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