“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
- Lewis Carrol, Alice’s adventures in wonderland (1865), ch. 12
Earlier in the year I wrote a blog post on Improving your essay writing skills, which is quickly becoming one of the most frequently accessed posts I’ve written. If you are currently writing your first academic assignment, it’s worth a look, as it sets out the process in brief and covers two key elements – the introduction and the conclusion.
I wrote very little about how to go about looking for literature to support your writing in that post, and I want to address that here – albeit in part only. Specifically, I want to write about starting your research, covering how to begin, using table of contents and indexes, and coping with unfamiliar terms and concepts.
Where shall I begin?
It is very natural to begin your search for supporting material by typing some version of the essay title into Google or Library Search, hoping to find material that covers the topic. This is sometimes a productive strategy – especially as some works in the library may be in high demand - but can just as often send you down blind alleys, make you miss more useful material or plunge you into writing that you are not yet able to understand. Try and resist.
Before searching for material to help you answer the question, start reviewing what you know already. The questions you are asked to research always relate to material that is covered to some degree in the modules that you are taking, so you shouldn’t be starting with a blank slate. Review the reading and thinking you have already done. Then try to pose a series of questions you need to find answers for. This will help you get the most out of the literature when you start reading.
Your lecturers have supplied a reading list, and although you are often required to go beyond this, you should start here before moving on to other works.
Using table of contents and indexes
Look in the table of contents and the index of books to try to pinpoint sections which relate to the topic you will be writing on. Think laterally about the terms you are looking for – you will need to consider synonyms, antonyms, and alternative terms which may be broader or narrower than the topic as defined in the question. This is also true when using Library Search or any other database to find resources.
Unfamiliar terms and concepts
Look for terms that you are unfamiliar with in textbooks, or in encyclopedias. Wikipedia can help, but concentrate on more authoritative sources such as subject-specific encyclopedias. The e-resource CredoReference provided by the library can really help here, providing authoritative articles on many topics – especially in the area of philosophy and cultural studies.