Research Techniques for Writing

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Have you been assigned a research-based writing project? No need to panic! We'll learn what kind of research to do based on what kind of writing project and topic you have. Then we'll discuss how to gather, organize, and document information for three different types of writing projects.

Common Types of Research-Based Writing Projects

If you're doing research for a writing project, the chances are that your assignment is explanatory (explaining how to do something), informative (providing background facts about something), or persuasive (also called argumentative; convincing readers to agree with your view on something). Each requires a somewhat different research strategy. As examples, let's look at an explanatory essay on bodyboarding, an informative essay on sushi, and a persuasive essay on why living on a coastline is healthier than living far inland.

General Research Tips

No matter what your project is, it's important to stay organized. First, think about your topic and make an outline showing the logical order of each essay section. Focus on one part of your essay at a time, and use reliable sources. Avoid Wikipedia pages, forums (like Yahoo Answers), and personal blogs, since their credibility can't be verified. Consider a variety of research media, such as websites, print material, film documentaries or news reports, or even personal interviews. Take notes on the information each source offers. Separate your research findings by topic for easy consultation; use paper folders or folders on your computer. Finally, always cite your sources so your readers know they can trust your information, and so they can find it for themselves. It's easiest to add to the list as you go along to avoid losing or forgetting citation information.

Explanatory Essay: Bodyboarding

Let's say you're explaining how to bodyboard. If you're giving the reader a basic overview, you might include sections on each of the required steps in order: purchasing a board, choosing a location, and using the bodyboard safely and effectively. In this case, you'll be doing limited research on multiple subtopics. Water sports and coastal tourism websites, sports magazine articles, and bodyboard retail websites are good places to start. If you're focusing on a particular aspect of bodyboarding, like advanced techniques, you'll be doing detailed research on one topic. You'll probably consult sports magazine articles, interviews with professional bodyboarders, and documentaries. With both essay types, you can start with a simple internet search, then visit links that look helpful and trustworthy. Scan your sources for relevant information (don't get distracted by cool-looking bodyboards)! List the most relevant, high-quality sources for each section based on your notes and observations. Use them as examples or supporting statements in your essay, and add them to your bibliography.

Nelson Quan bodyboarding in Honolulu, Hawaii
Nelson Quan bodyboarding in Honolulu, Hawaii

Informative Essay: Sushi

Let's say you're teaching readers about sushi. If you're giving them a basic overview, you might include sections on history and origin, types commonly available, necessary ingredients and preparation techniques, eating techniques, and maybe even choosing a good sushi restaurant. Again, you'll be doing limited research on multiple subtopics. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) website and some online informational and etiquette guides are good places to start; so are books and documentaries. You can find hard copies at your school or local library. If you have a streaming movie service and an e-reader, you can access these digitally. If you're focusing on a particular aspect of sushi, like environmental concerns related to over-fishing, you'll do in-depth research, and will probably consult news and conservation magazine articles. These will have the most up-to-date information on your topic. Again, scan your sources for relevant information (don't get distracted and start making reservations)! List your best sources, use them in your essay, and add them to your bibliography.

Platter containing various types of sushi
Platter containing various types of sushi

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