Research for Essay Writing in English

This libguide was created to provide information resources and tools for the students of the Essay Writing course ENG 1100

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Determine an appropriate scope of investigation
  • Apply brainstorming methods, like concept mapping, to refine your topic
  • Select appropriate resources to get background information on your subject (encyclopedias, dictionaries, web sources)

1. Start with a topic

The first step to any research project is to choose a topic. Often you can choose your own topic, however, at times you may be called up to write on a specific topic or to choose from a listing. 

What are you interested in finding out?

  • Select a topic that interests you whenever possible.
  • Gather and read background information.
  • Make a list of key concepts and write a research question or topic statement. It's important to be as specific as possible!
    • Your research question or topic statement may change once you start searching. If the question is too broad, you will need to go back and narrow your topic further. 

2. Gather background information

When you start thinking about your research question or topic, you should start by gathering background information. This information can help:

  • Familiarize yourself with a topic.
  • Define a research topic:
    • Identify key concepts and keywords you can use in your search strategy.
    • Discover related concepts.
  • Locate other pertinent sources you can use to complete your assignment.

Specialized Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

Reference tools such as specialized encyclopedias are good starting points to find background information on your topic. Here are some online reference tools that will help you familiarize yourself with your topic.

3. Research Question

A research question indicates the direction of your research. It is an open-ended query, not a final claim or conclusion about an idea. The research question guide all subsequent stages of inquiry, analysis, and reporting. 

A well-developed research question will lead to an arguable thesis.

  • Broad question: too much information to cover; the essay will lack depth and focus
  • Narrow question: tracking down information takes too much time; not enough information available on the topic;  the essay will lack breadth

Steps to develop a research question: 

1. Choose a general topic or primary text that you are interested in (your professor might submit you some topics).
2. Do some preliminary search to gather background information and familiarize yourself with the topic.
3. Start asking you questions like: who? when? why? how? etc. 
4. Brainstorm ideas using different methods, such as concept mapping.
5. Make sure that your question is:

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one's audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows
  • concise: it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple "yes" or "no," but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to the composition of an answer
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts. 

(Content adapted from Richard G. Trefry Library and The Writing Center at George Mason University)

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping allows you to visually depict a system of relationships by creating a map in which nodes represent ideas or facts, and lines or connectors between nodes represent relationships (for example, cause-and-effect relationships, category and subcategory relationships, and so on). (Definition from University of Waterloo)

See the video on the left to learn more about how to create a concept map.

✓ Good research question:

How can the regular practice of a sport improve our mental health? 

X Not so good of a research question:
What are the effects of doing sports on our health?


If you have questions, or if you run into problems that the guide does not address, e-mail Catherine Lachaîne at


This online guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. This page is attributed to Catherine Lachaîne.