Sunday 20 December 2015

How to Write a Research Essay

In my editing work, I come across some wonderful essays that give me great hope for the next generation of scholars.

And then there are the others.

Don't despair. For many people, a few simple steps will get you on the road to writing research essays that will boost your grades and give you the skills you need to thrive in the modern economy.

In my opinion, research and writing are the most important skills that you gain from a university education. Being able to analyze an argument, find information, express opinions, make conclusions, and justify opinions are all vital in the wide variety of professions that require a post-secondary academic education. Writing a research essay, whether in first year courses or at the graduate level, contributes to developing these skills.

Before you start your research, have a pretty good idea of the topic you are going to write about. Research means looking for information, and you need to be specific. You may find that as you do research, you will see that your first ideas were not practical, or you might find something that is more interesting. It's usually OK to change at this point, unless you need permission from your instructor.


The first step to writing a research essay is the research. Forget about Google. Your school should provide you with a login to access your university's database. In fact, there should be several databases, each of which is subject-specific. Choose the database appropriate to your area. If you are not sure, ask a librarian.

If you don't know how to access the school databases, you need to talk to the library staff. If it's Sunday night and your essay is due tomorrow, then say a prayer and use Google. However, what often happens is that Google will lead you to the names of the articles that you want to read, but they are in databases that you need to pay to access. Sometimes you can access whole articles through Google Scholar, but it's hit and miss.

Assuming you are on the library database, you are going to search for articles. Think of several key words that could be used to describe the topics you are interested in. You can search for these individually or separately. At this point in the research your goal is to identify several research studies that will give you information needed for your essay.

I like to combine specific words to get a smaller search result. However, being too specific might end up with no results. Don't expect to strike gold with the first search. This process can take a little while as you try as many combinations of search terms as you can think of. As you find articles, first look at the title, then check the abstract to see if they will be helpful. Only save the ones that show some promise.

Most of the time with a university database, you can save the article in pdf format. Sometimes the articles come with weird names like yscef2343.pdf. Save this with a name that makes sense to you. You are going to (hopefully) end up with a dozen or more articles (to be narrowed down later) so naming them sensibly saves you time later.

After you have a number of articles saved, your next step is to decide which ones are helpful. The normal structure for a research study is the introduction, methods, data, discussion and conclusion. The introduction will tell you the relevance of the study to existing theory. Usually it will identify gaps or contradictions that it is designed to address. That can be useful to provide you specific places to look for other studies in the area you are researching. I find that the methodology and data (especially for quantitative studies) are not useful at this point. I usually skip to the discussion to see what is of value of any particular study.


The important thing before you start writing is that you have the information you need available. This doesn't mean that you have a certain number of studies, but that you have reliable data to back up any statements you are going to make in your essay. No matter what claims you make, you will need to show that someone of authority believes the same thing.

First create an outline. An outline is simply a point-form map of your essay. First you will establish some basic facts (point 1, 2, 3). This might take two or ten paragraphs. Then you are going to make an argument about these facts, supporting some and contradicting others. This is true for virtually all subject areas.

Each paragraph will be structured like this:

  1. Topic sentence will begin the paragraph.
  2. Statement of fact with citation.
  3. Your discussion of this information (may go on for several sentences, or may introduce new information with citation).
  4. Apply this to a case at hand (if relevant).
  5. If additional information is related to this topic, include in the same paragraph.
All information needs to be cited. That's one of the places where people lose marks on research papers.

Be careful about quoting. APA style specifically says paraphrase unless a quote is so perfectly worded that you couldn't find better words. Don't quote statistics or findings, paraphrase. It's very poor style to insert a sentence quoting a statistic. Also make sure the quote really adds to the argument. I often see quotes that are inconsistent with the logic of the argument, or make some reference that is irrelevant.

After you've written all your paragraphs, you need to read it over and edit it several times to make it consistent and smoothly flowing. Write the introduction last, or at least be prepared to revise it after you write the body of the essay.

Get a friend to read it before you hand it in. There's nothing better than a second set of eyes to review what you've written to catch typographical and logical errors. If you don't have a friend who can do it, then consider hiring an editor. Look at the comments and edits to learn how you can write better the next time. Writing is a skill that takes time to learn, but if you've come this far, you can do it.

Saturday 19 December 2015

How to create a table of contents in MS Word

If you're writing a book, or even a thesis, you will need a table of contents. It's a pain to have to meticulously note each page that a subheading falls on, in addition to the chapter headings. Any of these can shift at the last moment after a small edit, making your table of contents inaccurate.

However, there's an easy solution. And it's built into MicroSoft Word.

If you create your headings using MS Word's built-in styles, you can create an automatic table of contents. It's easy. You can later update all the entries automatically as the page numbers change, or if you change or edit the titles and subtitles.

Here's a screenshot of the toolbar in MS Word when you are in the Home tab. Notice on the left, the icons for the various styles available. The default is "Normal." If you click on the little triangle on the far left, the icons will scroll and you'll see additional styles. And the last icon opens the Styles Pane, which is a mini-window showing more styles. Remember, you can edit styles to make them look any way you like: font, size, indentation, etc. When you change a style definition, it will be applied to every instance of that style, saving you the trouble of going through the document changing the style on different blocks of text.

On the left is a screenshot of the styles pane. I find it a little easier to work with styles in this view. The pane scrolls to show additional styles.

The styles "Heading 1" and "Heading 2" will automatically appear in your table of contents when you create it. In fact, as you use these styles, additional styles that will be called "Heading 3" and so forth will be automatically added to your style list so they are available as you need them.

Styles such as "Title" and "Subtitle" will not be added to the table of contents, so you can use them or create others as needed. You can also change the names of the headings that do appear in the table of contents. In a book editing project, I changed "Heading 1" to "Chapter Title" so I knew which style to use when formatting each chapter. I modified the style so it always forced the chapter onto a new page.

It's helpful to learn how to use the styles in MS Word. (The basic thing you need to know is that to apply a style, simply click anywhere in the paragraph that you want to be in that style, then click on the name of the style in the list and the paragraph will be automatically formatted to that style.)

So the key to creating the table of contents is that you do it after you create the text. Write your paper or book, and then use the styles to format the headings. Remember, you can make changes and additions easily after you create the table of contents, but you need to have some of the writing done first.

Before you create the table of contents, click at the place where you want the table to appear. It won't automatically appear at the beginning of the document. If you have a title page, create a new blank page after the title page (or after the abstract). Wherever your cursor is flashing is where the table of contents will appear.

To create the table of contents, use the Insert menu. You will see "Index and Tables..." Remember, if you see an ellipse (...) after a menu item, then it will open a dialogue box. In this case, you can create an index as well as a table of contents. I'm not going to explain the index here, since it's not a tool I normally use.

In the screenshot to the left, you can see the menu items. The words beside are a list of styles that I created in a document as I was writing this blog post. This is from MicroSoft Word 2014 on the Mac. Your screen may differ somewhat.

The picture below shows the dialogue box for creating the table of contents. There are several style options. I'm showing the basic on from the template. Notice, I've added Heading 3 here. But the other styles, such as Title, don't show up.

Once you have created the table of contents, the only other thing you need to know is how to update it. With a PC, you can right click anywhere on the table of contents to get a contextual menu to appear. With a Mac, Command-click or use a two fingered click.

In the contextual menu, choose "Update Field". You'll get an option to update all or only page numbers. If you choose "Update All" then all the corrections and changes to titles and subtitles will be reflected in the actual table of contents.

If there are additional MS Word functions you want to use, let me know in the comments section. If you like this post, give it a Google +.

The first image is courtesy of Keerati at Additional images are mine.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Top 5 Grammar Resources

When I'm asked a grammar question, or even in my editing work, I often have to turn to other sources for advice. People often ask "What's the rule for...?" but there's no official book listing rules. In fact, English doesn't have an official body setting rules for the language. If it did, the language wouldn't be the lively, ever-changing tool that it is. Often grammarians will disagree. Nonetheless, there are generally agreed-upon conventions.

In fact, there are two distinct approaches to grammar: prescriptivist and descriptivist. Prescriptivism is the idea that the rules are set and we must follow them. Descriptivism is the idea that grammar is simply the description of how words convey meaning. For example, verbs change to convey whether an action is in the present, past or future. The general rule is to add -ed to make a verb in the past tense. But everyone understands when that rule is broken and someone says "Yesterday I carry heavy load." However, without the marker "yesterday" it gets harder to understand. So the more grammatical errors in a statement, the more likely the person receiving the message will be confused.

People learn to speak their native language without even being aware of the rules. And many speakers use non-standard variations of both grammar and pronunciation. Despite these facts, it is still necessary for people to be able to write standard English, especially in academic writing. Thus we often need to consult reliable sources.

1. Grammar Girl. Mignon Fogarty has to be the smartest grammarian out there. I've been listening to her podcasts since I got my first iPod 10 years ago. What I love about Grammar Girl is that she's so thorough. If she gets a grammar question, she researches the history of the usage, she consults Google ngram, and she has access to a wide variety of sources. If I search for a grammar question on line and Grammar Girl comes up in the search results, I usually go there first. Plus, last year in Poetry Month, I won her grammar poetry contest with my Ode to the Adverb, which she read on her podcast. You can buy her book as well.

 2. The Blue Book of Grammar. This site is in support of a book by the same name authored by Jane Strauss, who sadly has passed away. With free quizzes and lots of resources, it's a great place to determine the correct usage. Technically, grammar only refers to how words convey meaning. But frequently we include punctuation and capitalization and other issues of writing. The Blue Book of Grammar includes resources for all these language issues. If you really want a book on your bookshelf for reference, you can buy the Blue Book of Grammar at Amazon.

3. Grammar Monster. With daily tips, glossaries, common mistakes and a twitter feed, you'll find a lot of grammar resources at Grammar Monster. I like how thorough it is. There are a huge number of resources here, all gathered together on the homepage, so you can simply click through to the topic you are looking for. In addition to grammar, it provides tips on common mistakes, homophone errors and punctuation issues. This would be a great place to explore if you are learning English and simply want to learn.

4. English Page. Speaking of learning English, this site is designed for people learning English as a second language, but I like it too because it is so well organized and thorough. It contains plenty of tutorials and quizzes to help you reinforce your understanding. I highly recommend it.

5. English Grammar Online. This site has a real focus on verbs. Verbs are one of the most important areas of knowledge when learning English since they change into so many forms to convey meaning. This site also includes games and riddles, so it's a great place to play to improve your English skills. Try chatting with Egon the dragon-bot.

I hope you find these sites useful. Use the comments below to suggest other sites for grammar help. However, as always, spam will be deleted, so if it's not a grammar site forget it.

Click here to shop for more grammar books

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at