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Essay Writing Part 2: How to Organise Your Research

Essay Writing Part 2: How to Organise Your Research


Often students fail to make the proper connection between their research stage and writing their first draft. They may not have completed a research stage correctly, so when they sit down to write their essay, they may feel as if they are starting from scratch. Or they may not have recorded their research correctly, resulting in them needing to repeat work in order to write or properly reference their essay. Or they may have conducted and recorded their research but not organised it correctly, which again serves to make the writing stage more difficult than it needs to be.

This guide will explain how to use a research document to organise your research. This is one Word document in which all your research is recorded and organised following the structure of your essay plan.

Using this method will ensure that you will not need to repeat any work unnecessarily, you will be able to easily distinguish between your own notes and direct quotations, and you will have already collected the information needed for your referencing. Further, this method means that you are not just recording what you are reading, you are analysing it and organising it into themes or topics as you go, the way you will discuss it in your essay. This allows you to make all the decisions required in order to write your essay before you begin writing the first draft, making the transition between research and writing easier and smoother, and helping to eliminate feelings of writer’s block.

Remember, you can also learn about how to organise your research by watching the video on Capstone Editing's YouTube channel.

Using a research document

The basis of your research document is your rough essay plan. Turn each section of your plan into a heading under which you can record your research. For example, in the essay plan above, Topic 1 is ‘Disease and demographic impact’. This will be a heading in your research document. As you research this topic, you will be able to separate the information you gather on ‘disease and demographic impact’ into additional subheadings, such as ‘types of diseases’, as in the example below. Subheadings are important for helping you organise your notes and navigate your research document. 

Example entry in a research file:

Topic X: Name of topic
  • The subject of the paragraph
    • ‘The exact wording of the source goes here, using punctuation marks so you can see that you are quoting.’ (Put the reference information here.)
    • [Your notes and ideas go here. Your own words go in square brackets and do not have punctuation marks.]
Topic 1: Disease and demographic impact
  • Types of diseases
    • ‘Epidemic disease introduced from Europe and Africa repeatedly swept through Latin America, beginning before the fall of Tenochtitlan. Smallpox, measles, typhus, influenza, pneumonic plague, and pestilential fevers were the most prominent killers.’ (Burkholder & Johnson 2012, p. 267.)
    • [This is important introductory information that I should put at the beginning of the discussion.]

You should record both direct quotations from the sources you read and your own notes, in your own words, but you must make it clear which is which. You can do this by putting quotation marks around direct quotations, or putting your own words in brackets, or by using different colours or fonts. The example above uses quotation marks for direct quotations and puts the student’s own words in square brackets.

You should begin compiling your bibliography (or reference list) in your research document as soon as you begin your research. When you start reading a source, add the reference to your list. This way, you will have the reference already completed when you use that material in your essay. Also be sure to include the full reference information, including page numbers, for all the information you record in your research document at every instance where you record it, especially direct quotations. Using good research practices means there is no such thing as ‘doing your referencing at the end’.

How a research document helps you research and write your essay

The most common (and ineffective) ways of note-taking while researching an essay are 1) highlighting source documents and taking notes in comment boxes or margins and 2) typing notes into a Word document arranged by source. Both of these methods have problems, including not being able to remember where you read a certain piece of information, accidentally thinking that an idea is your own when it is actually from a source, and spending too much time researching one topic at the expense of others. Correctly using a research document overcomes these problems. 

By critically arranging and organising material in a Word document as you research and adding your own notes (clearly marked as different from the words of others), you will have an easy-to-navigate collection of all the most important information you have gathered during your research, making it quick to find any information you are looking for. You will have clearly marked your own words as distinct from the words of others, reducing the chance of accidental plagiarism. You will also be able to see at a glance which topics you have plenty of information for and which topics you need to focus on more. 

Moreover, through the process of compiling a research document, you will be thinking more clearly about 1) the argument you will make in your essay, 2) the most directly relevant supporting points to make, and 3) the relative importance of those points (which determines how many words you will spend on them, and in turn how much research time you should spend on them). 

The advantages of working in this way are:  

  • You will minimise wasted research effort.
  • You will develop your essay plan as you research.
  • You will have all the information you need to move seamlessly into the essay writing stage. 

How your research document helps you to refine your essay plan

Using a research document, all decisions about what will go into your essay and in what order will be made during the research stage, before you even start writing. A common mistake made by students is to think that the research and writing stage are distinct steps, without important and necessary connections. 

As you research, you may find that your rough essay plan needs to be adapted to fit the information you are finding. For example, you might find that one topic area is broader and more important than others, perhaps requiring a few subheadings. These subheadings will become paragraphs in your essay. You might find that a topic you think is going to be important is not, but that another topic you have not thought of is commonly mentioned in the literature. You will therefore decide to discuss this topic rather than the other. You will also be thinking about the relative importance of the topics to supporting your argument. You must order your topics from most to least important. 

As the final step in the research stage, you will need to decide which information from your research document should be included in the essay, and what you can leave out. You will now have a document that shows:

  • the topics and subheadings (i.e. the sections and paragraphs) that will comprise your essay, with all information to be included organised under these headings
  • the order in which you will write about your topics
  • all necessary referencing information, to help you write a plagiarism-free essay.

The result will be a clear map, containing all necessary information and referencing details, to writing your essay. Using this method, you will never again start the writing phase feeling you are starting from scratch. You are now ready to follow the process detailed in the next article in this series, ‘How to Finalise Your Essay Plan’.