The Writing Process

1 Access and Acquire Knowledge

Research Your Topic

Many of the writing assignments you undertake will require research. You will need to read and take notes on print and internet sources—books, articles, websites—that contain information that will help you develop the thesis of your essay. While you do so, keep in mind these guidelines for effective research:

  1. Make certain your sources are valid and reliable. There is so much information readily available on any topic, and not all of it will be authentic. Some of it might even be so inaccurate it will undermine rather than support your thesis. Online encyclopedias are uneven: the content of some articles is excellent, but the content of others might be riddled with errors. Articles, online or in print, from academic journals are usually good sources, as are articles from established and respected magazines and newspapers. Internet sources with a URL ending in .edu (for education) or .gov (for government) are usually valid and reliable.[1] Be wary of using information from blogs and Facebook posts. Internet sources with a URL ending in .org (for organization) might be biased if the organization represents a certain social or political cause or point of view.
  2. Make certain your sources are directly relevant to your topic. In this information age, it is usually possible to find good print and, especially, internet sources that will provide you with just the information you need to complete an assignment successfully. Some topics require current information. If, for example, you were writing an essay about treating the flu or recombinant DNA or the progress of global warming, sources written even just a couple of years ago may be outdated.
  3. Refine your search terms, which are those keywords that you enter into database search boxes. For example, “Global warming” as a Google search term (without quotation marks) could yield about 444 million results; “causes of global warming” about 364 million; “the effects of global warming on hurricane intensity” about 37,000; and “the effects of global warming on hurricane intensity in Florida in 2017” about 12,000. This last number is still a lot, but it would be possible now to skim through the first twenty or so results to find the best sources. Another good way to refine your search and to have confidence in the sources it yields is by using a digitized database, such as JSTOR, EBSCO, or ProQuest, if your school has a subscription.
  4. Write down all of the bibliographical information about your source, so you won’t have to access it again online or, worse, find a book again that you have already returned to the library. Record the full names of all of the authors; the full title of the book or article; the exact date of publication: the year, and, for articles, the month and the day; the issue number and volume number for an article in an academic journal; the edition number, if it is other than the first edition or if it is a revised edition; the URL and, if available, the DOI (digital object identifier).
  5. Consult your school librarian. Librarians can direct you to sources you might not otherwise have known about; help you identify the best, most reliable and valid sources; and help you refine your search terms so they yield the best results.

Exercise One

Select a topic of interest to you. Carefully following the guidelines presented above, find three articles that will be good sources of information for the topic you have selected.

In small groups, share and discuss the process you went through to find your sources and explain why you believe they are good sources. Share constructive advice on the source lists group members have put together.

Your teacher might ask you to hand in your articles.

Generate Ideas

All academic writing assignments require knowledge, but some do not require research. Both a narrative essay about a significant personal experience and an in-class or examination essay, which tests your knowledge of course content, do not require—in fact, preclude—the use of secondary sources. Even so, there are some techniques you can try to help you discover or access knowledge you can use to develop the ideas in a narrative or examination essay.

  1. Focus in on your topic and then, for ten minutes or so, write out quickly and without regard to the rules of grammar and sentence structure ideas about your topic as they come randomly into your head. This is a technique known as freewriting, and it can be an effective way of generating ideas and content you can use.
  2. Write out the keywords from your topic in the centre of a blank sheet of paper. Circle the keywords. Then, around the keywords, write out other points as they occur to you, points that are relevant to and could develop the main idea the keywords express. Then circle these points and draw lines linking together related ideas. This technique, known as webbing, can not only reveal ways of developing your thesis, but also help you begin to establish the organizational structure of your writing assignment.
  3. Write out the questions that you will need to answer as you work your way through the process of completing your assignment successfully. Try to answer these questions, to the best of your ability, with the knowledge you already possess. This is a technique journalists use to file a full story. They ask who is involved; what happened; where did it happen; when did it happen; why did it happen; how did it happen? It is sometimes referred to as the W5 method or the pentad, though the “how” question does add a sixth dimension.

Exercise Two

Select one of the following broad topics: hockey, hip-hop music, vacations, designer handbags, reality television programs, weddings, lipstick. Working quickly, use the methods for generating ideas explained above to generate ideas about the topic you selected.

Remember this is often a good method for refining a broad topic into a workable thesis. See if any potential thesis statements emerge from this exercise.

In small groups, share your experience using these methods for generating ideas, stressing the extent to which you found them useful or ineffective.


  1. Note that these domains are American.

License

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Composition and Literature by James Sexton and Derek Soles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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