Part 1: Accumulating Information for Your Essay

Reference Books and Useful Webpages

By Pat Bowden, published December 12, 2017.

Part one of a three-part series on writing essays and peer assessments:

Part 1 Accumulating Information for Your Essay.
Part 2 Writing Your Essay.
Part 3 Assessing Your Peers’ Essays.

Writing essays is basically a five-step process:

  1. Accumulating information.
  2. Arranging.
  3. Writing.
  4. Editing.
  5. Proofreading.

If writing nonfiction, such as a biography or about a scientific topic, then a bibliography or list of references is also needed.

This week I will discuss accumulating information, compiling the bibliography or references list, and required language skills for writing an essay.

Accumulating information

As soon as you can access the requirements, start thinking about your essay. If it is in the back of your mind and you consciously think about it from time to time well before the due date, you may come up with more ideas. Record thoughts as they occur, either on paper or in a notes app. Don’t let procrastination take over, and if you find yourself deferring the task, start off with a Pomodoro or two.

Make sure you have carefully read the requirements and guidelines for the essay before starting. If an assessment rubric is provided, read this too and refer to it often while preparing and writing your essay to check that you are keeping on track and fulfilling the requirements.

The topic question will usually have given you some ideas about where to start but if you are feeling totally lost, just start writing down anything that is remotely related to the topic. You can also check the class discussion forum. If your difficulty hasn’t already been raised and answered by others then post a question to the forum. Do not wait until the last moment for this because it can take time to receive a response, and sometimes you may not receive an answer at all. After posting your question, continue to keep the essay in the back of your mind. You may wake up next morning and think “That’s what they want!” or “This is how I will approach it.”

Some courses provide guidelines for where information can be found. Remember to use these resources as they will make your task easier. Information can be found in the course materials, libraries, or online. Not all results that come up in an online search will be correct. Authoritative sites such as peer-reviewed journals, government sites and Google Scholar are generally more reliable than a site like Freddy’s Fictional Facts. Even Wikipedia may not be completely reliable, although it may provide links to verifiable sources.

Remember to record where you found all the information: reference books, websites, even course materials (for example Course lecture Module 1: “Expert Interviews”, at 4 minutes 30 seconds).

Make this list comprehensive. Include authors’ names, title of the resource, year published, publisher (or journal), page numbers and URLs (the web address of any online page you referred to). This not only forms your Bibliography or References section, it helps you find the original source again to check whether or not your essay agrees with the reference materials, or if you discover you need to refer more extensively to a particular source.

Bibliography or References

What is the difference between a bibliography and a list of references? According to Massey University, a list of references contains only those works directly cited in the document. A bibliography includes all works the author has used while preparing the work, whether or not they have been directly referred to in the text. The list you created while accumulating the information for your essay would be a bibliography, but if your essay only needs to have cited references mentioned, cut out those that have not been directly referred to.

Have you included your bibliography or references in the format required? Learning about the requirements early can save time later. You can format them in the correct way as you go along, to save a job at the end. Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab), found at is another helpful resource for citing references. It discusses several different styles of citation depending on the field of study.

Some assignments need cited references to be noted at the relevant places in the text. This can be done by inserting the reference in parentheses or by number (perhaps formatted assuperscript) beside the text. The number refers to the source in the list at the end of the essay. Or you can refer to the reference by noting the author and year of publication in the text, with the full details in the bibliography or list of references.

If there are no instructions on how to include references, you can list those you used to write the essay at the end. Choose a style and list all the resources in a uniform way.

Language Issues

Essays are submitted in the course’s language. For example, if the course is presented in English, then essays should be submitted in English. This can be a challenge if English is not your native language, but very satisfying when you complete an assignment.

If you are not confident in written English, you may want to investigate grammar with Khan Academy. Another option is to take a MOOC about writing. Class Central listed 40 courses when I typed “essay” into the search box.

EdX has How to Write an Essay which is a five-week, self-paced MOOC offered from December 7, 2017 to February 22, 2018. All the course materials, including a peer assessment and the opportunity to receive further feedback from your classmates and course mentors, are available for free, or you can purchase a verified certificate.

Coursera has English Composition 1, also available for free unless you want a certificate. Another Coursera offering is Getting Started with Essay Writing which is part two of the Academic English: Writing Specialization. You can access the single course materials for free, but quizzes and feedback on writing assignments are only available behind a paywall. Coursera also has other writing courses for varying styles and levels of language competence.

FutureLearn also has several courses listed, check the site for availability.

A Final Thought

Although it’s easy to procrastinate, by making an early start you can produce a better quality essay.