Find Your Foundation: 10 Tips on Writing Research Essays

La Trobe Law School recently ran a Legal Skills Workshop of 2017 on writing research essays. Organised throughout the semester, these workshops aim to sharpen your legal and professional skills and provide you with some handy tips for your law school career.

1. Understand the task at hand and start early.

Make sure you understand the question and the assessment criteria – ask your lecturer for clarification if necessary. Research essays simply cannot be done well at the last minute. Allow enough time to research properly, to critically analyse your sources, and to formulate your arguments.

2. Research thoroughly and thoughtfully

Familiarise yourself with all of the relevant databases/catalogues and how to use them. You can find the key legal databases here or contact Kate Freedman for assistance. Read critically; keep your topic and task in mind as you read. Cite as you go. This will help you to avoid plagiarism and save time when it comes to inserting and fixing your citations.

3. Figure out your argument

As you keep reading, thinking and taking notes, you should be building an idea of your own answer to the question. This is your argument. Refining your argument, asserting it clearly and making sure you address counter arguments can take some redrafting.

4. Plan your essay

Planning goes hand-in-hand with figuring out your argument. Take the time to then arrange the various points you want to cover, in a logical order that helps you present your argument convincingly. Understand the word limit and plan accordingly. Great essays have a clear, confident introduction and conclusion, and a different point discussed in each paragraph. From your word limit, figure out what you will and won’t have space to cover.

5. Write!

By planning, you give yourself the skeleton of your paper – making the writing process less daunting! You can leave the introduction and conclusion till last and start with the body of your essay if you prefer. Use headings to keep you on track with your paragraphs and the arguments within them. Once your draft is polished, you can remove the headings or keep them where appropriate – check with your lecturer as to their preference. Insert citations as you go, even if they are just in an abbreviated format. Use quotations sparingly. It is better to express your understanding in your own words (remembering to cite appropriately) rather than compensating with long quotes. Check back to your research question. Is what you have written actually answering the question according to your lecturer’s instructions?

6. Edit for argument, structure and flow

Now it is time to revisit your structure. Do you need to reshuffle your paragraphs or edit your headings and sections? Review all of your points to make sure that they effectively contribute to strengthening your argument. Make sure that you are consistent with your argument throughout your essay and that you have considered and responded to counter arguments.

7. Check your title, introduction and conclusion

Your introduction should raise the topic you are about to tackle, clarify the central question to be addressed, summarise your main arguments and outline how the arguments will be presented in the essay. Your conclusion should recap and summarise your main argument(s) and then include a short reflection about the implications of what you have argued. If required, write an appropriate title for your essay – one that signals not only the topic, but also what your argument or stance will be.

8. Edit your paragraphs and headings

Begin each paragraph with a strong, clear opening sentence which states the main point of the paragraph (a topic sentence). Follow with sentences that expand the point, and provide evidence, explanation or examples. The final sentence should conclude and function as a bridge to the next paragraph. Recheck your headings. If you are keeping them, make sure they foreshadow your analysis and not just the subject discussed. Check back to the question, word limit and instructions making sure that you have succinctly addressed your arguments.

9. Proofread your sentences

Print a hard copy of your essay and read it aloud. Your ears will pick up any problems that your eyes didn’t notice. Note down anything that needs fixing. Check whether you repeat yourself unnecessarily. Is your grammar correct? Is your tense consistent? If your sentences are long winded, shorten them. Simple, clear sentences with a balanced tone (not too casual) make for a paper that is easy and enjoyable to read. Also, take care to format correctly: failure to do so may negatively impact your mark. Once you have proofread, take time to step away from your paper. Then repeat the proofreading process until you are satisfied.

10. Finalise your citations

You know the rules on plagiarism. Make sure you are appropriately citing everything that is not your own idea or your own words. The AGLC is your sacred text for law school citations. Get to know it well and refer to it as you go, correctly formulating your citations. Create an AGLC compliant bibliography if required. Proofread one final time!

Want to learn more about different legal skills? Attend one of our upcoming Legal Skills 101 Workshops!
See the Legal Skills 101 Workshops flyer for more details.

Lise Leitner