How to write a killer research essay

Joey finished her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and History in 2013, and is currently in her final year of her Masters in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. 

Whether you’re a seasoned Arts student double majoring in Politics and History, or a Commerce student who’s been caught with their pants down while trying to bludge a breadth, excuse me while I smack some hardcore research essay wisdom right into your ballpark.

Make your research topic as specific as humanly possible

Not unlike the secluded lake in the woods that’s the perfect place to hide a murder weapon, your topic should be deep and narrow, not broad and shallow.

Your research question should include several specific factors (i.e. person, place, event, ideology, policy, artwork, muppet) and how they influence or affect each other. For example, Kanye West is a crappy research topic. You need to focus on one specific element of Kanye West that interests you, like his album: My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy. Just an album is still too broad though, so look at specific themes that complement each other critically and can be used to build an academic argument. Try and incorporate at least three elements that can critically interact with each other—think, ‘The influence of x on y at z resulted in q.’ (Algebra, shit yeah).

Then add a self-referential in-joke at the start, follow it with a question mark or a colon and hot diggety, mate—you’ve got a research topic:

Who Will Survive in America? Examining the Influence of Consumer Culture and the American Dream in Kanye West’s My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy

Build an essay plan that would put fear into God

When I was in Year 12 my essay plans looked like this:



P1 – Robespierre’s a good guy

  • Strong leader
  • ‘Incorruptible’ (Find source that’s not Wikipedia???)
  • FIND THIRD POINT (Wore cool wigs??)

P2 – Robespierre bad guy

  • Guillotined many, many people
  • Started own cult
  • Was batshit bananas crazy

P3 – He’s a bit of both????

  • Wanted to create Virtue… through murder.
  • Was incorruptible…. Except for the murder.


If your essay plan looks like this, you need to amp up your game and stop binge-watching The Vampire Diaries before your VCE Revolutions exam, Joey. Your plan shouldn’t just be a way for you to nut out your argument. It should look like a beautiful Christmas tree, with flashing lights and everything. The trunk and branches are your basic ideas, the delicately-scented pine needles are your specific evidence and arguments from secondary sources, and your primary source quotes are the twinkling lights that glow softly in the lounge room on Christmas Eve and oh my god guys my mum switched to a fake Christmas tree like three years ago and I just miss the smell of real Christmas trees so much.

When adding a point, idea or argument to your essay plan, scribble the relevant source name and page number next to it. Highlight your secondary sources in one colour and your primary sources in another—that way you’ll know at a glance if you have a good distribution of both. Use the fugliest colour in your arsenal (i.e. orange), for the quotes utterly essential to your essay—that way you won’t over-highlight (because orange is gross), and you know you’re distilling your argument down to the essentials and won’t go off topic.

Trawl yo resources

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I’m starting off with a picture of a pug in a cow costume here because the phrase I am about to use generally sends any sense of fun or laughter scrambling from the room:


Honestly, they’re the bees knees. I didn’t know even know they existed until a few weeks ago, and suddenly a new world of research is laid out at my feet. The Library’s Subject Research Guides (LibGuides) contain individually tailored pages for specific majors within faculties that list relevant academic databases of primary and secondary sources.

When you’re using a search tool, don’t just type the same term over and over again and get frustrated when you receive the same results. Like a middle-aged pastor who is losing the interest of the young people in his congregation, you need to create your own Christian rock band and shake shit up.

EXPERIMENT: How many different ways can you research a topic provided by a Random Topic Generator? Today’s topic:

Image: Random Topic Generator


Give a shit about the details

Learn to love referencing. Embrace punctuation. Polish your essay like it’s the goddamn Oscar that Leonardo DiCaprio never won. Submit with a cover sheet.

You’d be astounded how small extra details like spelling and grammar can bump up your essay from a H2A to a H1. Tutors can tell when you’ve given a shit, and it makes a difference. I once handed in a research essay and was so past caring that I completely forgot to clean up the footnotes. I got a crappy mark, and the next semester my dog was put down. I’m not saying these events are connected, but also you can’t prove that they aren’t.

Allocate yourself as much time as possible at the end of the process to re-read over your essay for consistency, coherence and copyediting. Check out the incredible resources Academic Skills is throwing at you by the bucketful. Take the time to check up the proper referencing style and worship it like a God. Are you using Harvard? Chicago? MLA? In-text citations or footnotes? If footnotes, what’s the proper form for shortening? Take the topic sentence of each paragraph and read them out loud. Do they sketch a logical outline of your argument? If not, go back and write again.

And when everything gets too overwhelming, listen to this with your eyes closed and your fists pumped and then get right back into it:

– Joey

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