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Step 2 & Step 3: Planning and Organising
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Step 2: Planning your research
Planning your essay is vital, and it will help you to feel more in control of your assignment as it begins to take shape. Spending time planning and getting feedback on your plan is essential because it gives you time to seek advice, such as asking whether you are using the correct format for that type of assignment. A plan helps you to give your writing a clear and logical structure, and when you come to write your assignment it will drastically improve its flow and coherence. The structure your assignment will take will vary in terms of length, type, and style of academic writing, so don’t expect every structure to be the same. Consider using mind maps or bullet points to plan out your essay – there is no one right way to plan out your assignment so try different methods and find one that works for you. When you are planning, make sure you have the question and topic easily to hand: remember to plan for the question you have to answer, and not just the assignment you want to write!
Your plan should include an outline of each of the paragraphs in your essay and key ideas, topics, and themes you wish to address. All the sections should link and connect back to the question, so be aware of this when conducting research. As you discover new sources and material, you will be able to slot them easily into the relevant sections of your assignment. This then gives your essay a clear structure and ensures that the question is being answered throughout. The more you read in your discipline, the more you will get to know the structure and type of language to use.
Your plan does not have to be inflexible, and it can change as you research and work on your assignment. You may swap sections around, or find that a given section shifts in focus as you discover new material. This is okay, so long as you make sure that your research and your writing always links back to the question being asked. Make sure you do not drift onto an irrelevant tangent!
The Boole Library Website has some excellent resources for you to help you manage your assignments. Make sure that you look at their information on planning your essay, and guides to help in identifying the resources that you need to research effectively. Their resources will even help you search the databases effectively.
Investigating sources (broadly)
- Once you have your plan laid out, you can start researching. Consider what sources are most appropriate for your assignment, and use all the resources available to you. You can use more than one type of evidence in your assignment, but make sure that the sources you use are relevant to your assignment and to the question.
- Your lecturers will have given you a reading list, so make sure you actually use it! These texts are specifically chosen to help you with your coursework, and you’ll gain some valuable insights into the topic that are sure to make writing your assignment easier. If you’re unsure of where to start, this is always a good place! You can build up a basic understanding using these reading lists, and then read more widely as you come to grips with your chosen topic area.
- Read widely and be mindful of the guidelines you are given by lecturers and tutors on various texts. ‘Essential’ reading is just that – it is not optional! Try to incorporate texts that are not on the recommended reading lists as well, as this will show your lecturers that you are properly engaging with the subject matter.
- Consider the sources used in the literature you read: it may be useful to read these too if you can. Following another author’s paper trail may show you the basis on which they formed their arguments, and may lead you to further useful material.
- Critical thinking is essential in assignment writing. Critical thinking means carefully evaluating what information is relevant and correct, and it should form the backbone of your research. Do not simply trust something because it is printed in an academic text! When investigating sources, you need to be able to critically reflect on the resources and information that you use as part of your studies and research.
- Most material is heavily debated, and you should ask yourself whether a given source reflects the consensus or a divergent opinion. Consider the author’s intent, and what their agenda might be. Do you already agree with the author? Does the author assume you already agree with them? Demonstrating an ability to critically engage with the sources will show that you are not simply taking things at face value.
- Your writing needs to be able to reflect other ideas and arguments, yet showcase your own opinion and thoughts, utilising other sources to bring your ideas to the fore. This cannot be done unless you question what you read, and synthesise the thoughts of your sources to underpin your own writing.
- As you progress in the research process, you are going to be reading more and more material. You can keep track of your reading material by concept or by book. You may also divide the material you read into the sections you laid out in your plan.
- This can help to categorise the information in your mind, and will also highlight if one section is lacking in sources compared to the others.
Step 3: Organising and Refining your Research (in Narrow Terms)
Effective note taking is essential to keeping track of your research, particularly for larger assignments. Keep your notes in one place – whether that is physical or digital – and make sure you mark down what source a given note came from. This will ensure that when you come to write your assignment, you aren’t scrambling to find the sources your information came from. You need to track the following biographical details such as:
- Author's surname and initial
- Title of book / article
- Title of the journal
- Place of publication
- Publication year
- Page numbers
- Website details (including web address etc.)
- Library call number e.g. Q+3 801.53
- At this stage, you should organise your notes into the specific sections of your assignment, categorising them and slotting them into your plan. This will highlight areas that need more research, and will also help to refine your research further. Refining your research means building on what you researched initially, and honing in on your chosen topic area.
- Refining your research includes looking for material that proves the claims of your argument and disproves oppositional claims. As you research, you will find your topic area solidifying in your mind, and you will start to drill down more deeply into your chosen question. Your research will start broad and become increasingly narrow as you progress. Your initial research may have thrown up new questions you now wish to consider, or new discussions you wish to incorporate. Now is the time to dig into these specific sources, and critically engage with the material you’ve been reading.
- Now that you have the foundations of your research completed, it is also a good time to consider counterarguments. When you come to write your assignments, counterarguments can be an excellent means of furthering your discussion. Disproving a counterargument can strengthen your claims, while also showing a wider engagement with the subject matter.
- As you refine your research, you should consider possible counterarguments to your thesis, and locate sources that help to buttress your own arguments against these claims.