How to Write a Good Essay

STEP ONE: The first step to research is developing a topic that is not too broad or narrow in scope. To begin, think about:

  • what topic(s) interest you?
  • what questions do you have about the topic(s)?
  • what you would like to learn more about?

STEP TWO: To narrow or broaden the topic, add or remove a time period, place, person(s), event or subtopic:

Problem: Topic is too general and broad to address through a short piece of writing

  • The Metis Nation in Saskatchewan


  • Add subtopic and time period:  The politics of the Metis in 19th century Saskwatchewan
  • Add person(s), event and place:  Louis Riel and the Metis rebellion in Saskatchewan

Problem: Topic is too specific and narrow

  • The representation of animals in sculpture by female Metis artists from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan


  • Remove subtopic, person(s) and time period:  Visual art of the Metis in Saskatchewan
  • Remove place and expand time period:  The representation of politics in visual art of the Metis in the 20th century

STEP THREE: Restate the topic using "who, what, where, why, when, and how" questions. For example:

  • Why did Louis Riel lead a rebellion of the Metis Nation in Saskatchewan?
  • How are politics represented in visual art of Aboriginal peoples in Canada?

Deciphering your Assignment Tutorial

This video tutorial will show you how to deconstruct an assignment to its basic parts and identify appropriate sources to complete it successfully:

When beginning a research project, it's helpful to explore the background of a topic to familiarize yourself with key concepts and issues before forming an argument:

  • Review your course textbooks, readings and lecture notes
  • Browse reference sources such as encyclopedias
  • Search library databases with introductory and background information, such as those linked below

After you have selected and developed your research topic and question, you can use a concept map to use as a guide while searching for information.

Also called mind maps, a concept map is a visual way of representing how your ideas and important concepts are connected and interrelated.

Why build a concept map? Because it can help you:

  • Brainstorm new concepts and expand your terminology
  • Understand and process the relationships between concepts
  • Plan and organize an essay outline or research paper
  • Study for exams

Use the Credo Reference database below to build your own concept or mind map:

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Follow these links for more tools and information on creating and using concept maps:

A working thesis is a "rough draft" of your thesis that provides initial direction for the essay but will be adjusted and changed as you research and write.

As you gather and read more sources, you will find evidence that requires you to modify the working thesis. To form a working thesis, ask questions that trigger a debatable claim. 

Example 1: In using the theme of environmentalism and the topic of recycling, here are questions to consider:

  • What does Calgary do with disposed electronics?
  • What environmental risks exist with electronics?
  • Are these environmental risks being taken into account?

A working thesis based on these questions could be: Calgary should expand recycling programs for discarded electronics.

Example 2: In using the theme of reproductive rights and the topic of childcare, here are a few questions to consider:

  • What impediments exist for working parents?
  • What access to daycare exists in Alberta?
  • Is daycare affordable for parents who really need it?
  • What is available in other provinces?
  • Should government be involved in providing affordable daycare?

A working thesis based on these questions could be: Alberta should provide access to affordable daycare similar to what is available in Québec.*

*Adapted from the "Student Papers & Academic Research Kit" Tutorial, copyright at SPARK at York University 2013


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Developing a Topic Tutorial

This video shows you how to develop an appropriate topic for a research paper by considering goals, approaches, topic scope, and helpful resources:

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Reference books and databases provide general, introductory and background information, which is helpful when beginning to explore and develop a research topic:

1) Encyclopedias

A collection of knowledge or branches of knowledge given in a comprehensive but easy-to-read and concise manner:

  • Can be general (attempting to cover all fields) or specialized (aiming to be comprehensive in a particular subject or discipline).
  • Contain short essays or overviews with concise background and factual information 
  • May be a single-volume or multi-volume set of books
  • Do not provide in-depth and current information, so should not be the only source consulted in the research process
  • Are written by researchers and subject specialists

2) Dictionaries & Glossaries

An alphabetical list of words and terms that confirms spelling, pronunciation, etymology and/or definition. ​

  • Can be monolingual (with definitions of words from one language) or bilingual (with words translated into another language)
  • May focus on a specific subject, such as medical terminology or accounting terms

3) Thesaurus 

An alphabetical list of words and terms accompanied by synonyms and/or antonyms

  • Use a thesaurus to further your understanding of word usage and locate words with similar or opposite meanings