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4.10 The Research Essay -- Writing the Essay

Okay, so we've got a number of preliminaries out of the way. It's time to start writing that research essay!

First, keep in mind that you will never have enough time at your disposal to write an essay which presents a complete history of your subject. Instead, you should concentrate on (1) presenting the basic facts of your topic and (2) presenting your reader with an interpretation of those facts. In general, the purpose behind the research essay is quite simple: your instructor wants to see if you can use your knowledge of a specific subject in order to develop a thesis or central argument. With this in mind, you ought to introduce your topic clearly and make sure that any assumptions, judgments, interpretations are right up front. In other words, you have to tell your reader what your subject is, why it might be important enough for you to research, and what the topic might mean in the larger, historical, scheme of things.

Look, you've got to take a stand. You've got to be bold enough to make some kind of judgment about the subject which you have selected. A research essay which details the early career of say, Karl Marx, is one thing. But to place Marx's early career in the context of history, to illuminate the intellectual trends of his own day, and to suggest how his experiences early in his career might have made him the type of political theorist he eventually became, is clearly quite another. In other words, writing history does not merely mean telling it the way it was. That's called narration. A narration is a good thing. In fact, every research essay you contemplate will be part narration. But unless you also make the attempt to interpret the facts, your essay will fall short of the mark and you will have failed to "do history" properly.

So while you are engaged in the early stages of your research, make every effort to think in terms of the general interpretive structure of your essay. Why are you writing the essay? Is it to merely to present the facts? Or, are you trying to use those facts to make some general statement about those facts? Keep this in mind as you research your topic and eventually, an interpretive structure will certainly emerge.

I know I have said this before, but your essay will falter if it is not based on a sound game plan and this means organization. And the best way to get organized, and remain organized, is to use an outline. There's no escaping this fundamental tool. Consider your topic as a whole and then break it down into its component parts. How do all these components illustrate your general thesis statement? How does everything fit in? During your research you ought to have come to realize what aspects of it were given more importance than others. Your essay should include discussions of all these topics. So, if your sources consistently mention a number of basic elements, then so should you. You may decide to differ with the sources when it comes to interpreting these elements but just the same, the basic elements ought still to appear in your essay.

Well, let's say that you've followed the above skillfully but yet you find a few points not stressed by the literature. You want to include these points in your essay and you must! That's what doing history is all about. Even if your judgment is historically incorrect (for whatever reason) you still ought to press on and make your interpretation count. Although I chose the philosophy of William Godwin as my M.A. thesis subject, the majority of the literature suggested that he was little more than a minor radical. Perfect topic! I took my understanding of Godwin and in my thesis, suggested that it is quite possible that even if Godwin was a minor radical, his effect on other radicals of the 1790s was profound. Don't forget, a thinker can have an effect on his generation because he was both liked AND disliked. Not everyone agreed with what Godwin was saying but people did read his books. So his effect can be both negative and positive.

One more story. Although I decided that I would write my Ph.D. dissertation on the appearance of scientific management in England, I found quite quickly that there were no books about that topic at all. And then I discovered a footnote, buried deep in the back of one volume of The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, that said, "The entire subject of scientific management deserves further study." From that one statement I received all the impetus I needed to complete a 450 page dissertation on scientific management in England.

When you set about to construct your outline make sure that you have adequate information to support each aspect you wish to emphasize. If you don't have that information, you have a few options. (1) locate more information, (2) relegate the incomplete information to the status of a footnote or (3) remove that element completely. Feel free to suggest possible meanings or interpretations but remember, you must also make the effort to substantiate your claims as well.

It goes without saying that your research essay must have an Introduction, Body and Conclusion. Your Introduction is most important since it is there that you will attempt to establish the importance and necessity of writing the research essay in the first place. Although I have already spoken about this in a previous section, it makes sense that you literally "attack" your reader in the first paragraph. The first sentence ought to specify the entire focus of the essay. In this respect, the first sentence is sometimes the most important one to get just right.

While creating your outline, make sure that the sections follow one another in an order which you yourself have established. In other words, are you treating the subject topically or chronologically? Are you reviewing the literature surrounding a particular topic? Or, are you breaking new ground by looking at something in a new way, the so-called "original" contribution to history? Regardless, know which approach you are about to take. This will make organizing your note cards that much easier.

Once your rough outline has been established, and this could take several days in some cases, then it's now time to start writing the rough draft. And a rough draft it will be. You should have already separated your note cards into several stacks which correspond to specific sections of your essay. Of course, you ought to have a special pile of note cards with your "killer" quotations, you know, the ones you believe really capture the essence of an entire section. You'll know the killer quote when you see it!

Plan on writing four to six pages on each relevant section of your essay. And remember also to use your Introduction to tip off your reader regarding what sections will appear. Your reader will not wish to be left in the dark and needs some kind of direction while he reads your essay.

Which brings up an excellent point, one which is often overlooked. Who is your reader? Your instructor may come right out and tell you that you are writing for him and him alone. This is sort of an uncompromising position since this assumes that both you and your instructor are already familiar with the subject matter. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Ordinarily, you ought to assume that your reader is an individual of average intelligence who, although not a historian, still has an interest in your topic. In other words, you are not writing for a specialist. What this means is that you really can't assume too much regarding their knowledge. So, you have to explain things carefully. This will entail quite a bit of work on your part. As I've mentioned before, just stating something is not enough---you also have to explain it. And as you explain it to your reader, you know what will almost certainly happen? You will find yourself becoming the expert in that particular subject. After all, you are the one with the knowledge and it's your job to express that knowledge to someone who, ideally, wants to know more. Force yourself to be in control. After all, you are the author of this research essay.

Try to write your essay section by section. This means that your essay will more than likely be written over a period of several days. I have the habit of writing for two hours and then stopping. The next day, I read what I wrote the previous day and make corrections. Then I write the next section. By reading the previous section you will have a much better chance of making sure the logical flow between sections is left intact. And logical structure is important. You want your reader to maintain their interest in your essay. A poorly organized and illogical essay will cause your reader to give up in frustration.

As a rule, begin each paragraph with a statement which explains the general drift of what is to follow. As you close the paragraph, try to think ahead to the next one. Ideally, you want the last sentence of the first paragraph to suggest the first sentence of the next. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, it's not. And it is perhaps the logical structure of an essay which causes the most amount of problems. What I have said here will not guarantee you the grade you deserve, but it will point you in the right direction. After all, these are only guidelines.

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Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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