Research & Writing Tutorials

The videos and tutorials below–developed by St. Mike’s librarians and writing instructors–support students throughout the research essay and assignment process. You can access them using the Explore tabs in each section.

If you have any questions or feedback related to these tutorials, we’d love to hear them. Please send any comments or queries to Richard Carter or James Roussain.

Starting

Concept Maps

A concept map allows you to develop a sophisticated picture of your topic or research question. The key to this picture is relationships. You begin with some basic information and brainstorm to get it on paper or on a screen. Concept mapping helps you flesh out this information in several ways:

Organizing it into similar themes, topics, and categories.
Sorting details into hierarchies, from general concept to specific instance.
Pinpointing connections among these details.

There is no one way to develop a concept map, but here are some basic steps:

1. Begin with some introductory information about the topic (e.g. from class lectures, an encyclopedia, or a textbook chapter).
2. Brainstorm everything about the topic that comes to mind, and arrange it visually on paper or on a screen.
3. Sort into groups by topic.
4. Sort again by their relations with one another (e.g. general to specific).
5. Drum up new details (broader or more specific) and, if necessary, delete others.
6. Re-arrange details if necessary.
7. Work out connections among different details and indicate these connections with arrows.

Gathering

Sources

When researching, you need information. Even the smart and knowledgeable can’t know everything. In fact, the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know yet. You might need facts, you might need an overview, or you might need a thoughtful analysis. Having an idea what kind of sources you need before you look for them will make researching much easier.

Often your professor will tell you which sources, or kinds of sources, to look for. This guidance will depend on your subject area, discipline, and assignment. But, in general, there are several ways to identify what you might need:

1. PHYSICAL FORMAT: (e.g. book, DVD, magazine, ebook, microfilm, audio file, handwritten letter, webpage, film, cassette tape, photograph)
2. PURPOSE: (e.g. to inform, to entertain, to explore, to introduce, to analyze, to persuade, to sell, to discover)
3. INFORMATION TYPE: (e.g. Fact, argument, interpretation, criticism, opinion)
4. AUDIENCE: (e.g. scholars, children, general public, businesspeople, friends, family, a group with a shared interest)
5. RESOURCES: (e.g. tools used for finding sources such as catalogues, article databases, search engines, print indexes, bibliographies, subject headings, research guides, online text collections, webpages)
6. CONTENT TYPE: (e.g. newspaper article, book-length study, advertisement, movie, TV news broadcast, scholarly journal article, book review, documentary, interview, email, government document, lecture, statistical table)
7. MEDIUM: (e.g. print, online, TV)


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Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary and secondary sources refer to two key types of information used in scholarship.

primary source
is studied, either for its own sake, or for what it reveals about the time and place in which it was produced. Scholars, like bees among flowers, are drawn to primary sources because by examining these original documents they can create substantial contributions to research.

Examples: poems, archival letters, the Magna Carta, an email, historical newspaper articles, Ontario government internal documents, Second World War broadcasts, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, scholarly journal articles presenting original studies, Shakespeare’s plays, leases, census schedules, etc.

secondary source
is studied chiefly because it comments upon or analyzes a primary source or another secondary source.

Examples: monographs (book-length studies written by one author), essay collections, encyclopedia articles, many scholarly journal articles, most literary criticism, Biblical commentaries, etc.

Begin with secondary sources. Authors of these have already done a lot of work for you. They can tell you what has been written on a topic: which theories underlie it, which scholars have most advanced it, which controversies animate it, which arguments knot and unravel it, and which sources underpin it. For some courses, this second-hand scholarship is often all you need. All the same, a committed researcher rightly wonders how scholars come to their conclusions. Ask yourself Why as you read, and follow-up footnotes and bibliographies. Dig deep enough into secondary sources and you will usually find one or more primary sources beneath.


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Engaging

Paraphrasing & Synthesizing

Putting other people’s thoughts in your own words is essential to success at university. It helps you understand others’ ideas, it helps you ponder and critique them, and it helps you integrate them into your own work. Shuffling the words an author uses and substituting a few synonyms may give your sentences the appearance of paraphrase but they often expose a lack of understanding. Paraphrasing means rephrasing entirely—so what you’ve read is clear, both in your mind and on paper.

Understanding is key. Grasp a text’s ideas well enough and they naturally sprout an independent life, both in your brain and on your keyboard.

Here are 8 steps that may help.

1. Read the original text carefully.
2. Read it again till you feel you really understand it.
3. Hide the text away so you can’t see it.
4. Sit back and think about what you’ve read—in particular, figure out:
– what the gist (or main idea) is;
– what details the author uses to support this idea.
– what you NEED from this source—and what it has to do with your assignment.

5. State the main idea to yourself out loud. Don’t worry yet if you ramble at first, or if your interpretation is simplistic. Better a simple interpretation that means something to you than a complex one you haven’t grasped.
6. Write down what you said out loud. Revise a few times. Then go back to the original text to see if you’ve given an accurate account.
7. Switching from talking aloud to writing thoughts down can be challenging. If that happens to you, try a voice recorder. Many smart phones have one.
8. As with quotations, when you paraphrase you must always cite your source.

Using and Integrating Quotations

By Jordana Greenblatt

Many students find quotation baffling. You know you have to do it, but when, how much, and how aren’t terribly clear. Some assignments and/or disciplines will specify that they don’t want much—if any—direct quotation, telling you to paraphrase instead.

If that’s what your assignment or instructor says, listen to them! Don’t quote, just paraphrase as needed, citing appropriately. But what about when you are supposed to use quotation?

How Much Should You Quote?

Some assignments will ask you to close read or analyze a specific passage. For these assignments, you need to make sure that you engage substantially with the passage you have been assigned. Throwing in one or two lines from it and quickly moving on won’t suffice. You should use few, if any, examples from the rest of the text the passage comes from, instead prioritizing material from the passage itself.

What if you’re just writing a regular assignment (direct quotations are permitted, but you are not restricted to a single passage)? Quote as necessary to support your argument. If you’re writing an essay, say, about literature, and you almost never quote directly, you’re quoting too little. If the quotations—including from researched articles—are overshadowing your own voice, then you’re quoting too much.

When Should You Quote?

In general, you want to quote directly only when one or more of the following situations applies:

  • You will be engaging in substantial analysis of the specific passage or phrase you have quoted.
  • You will be critiquing, in detail, the position expressed in the passage or phrase you are quoting.
  • The specific language that the writer uses to express their idea is particularly interesting, eloquent, or noteworthy.

How Should You Quote?

Analyzing Your Quotations

Whenever you quote, you must follow your quotation with analysis immediately. It is your job to demonstrate why and how the quotation is important; don’t leave this task to your reader! Here are some examples (I have used MLA format. You should cite using whichever citation format has been specified by your instructor):

Bad: When Shakespeare writes “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate” in Sonnet 18, the reader can see that the person he is writing about is beautiful (1-2). The reader can see from the line “thy eternal summer shall not fade” that the beauty will last for a long time.

Good: Asking first “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, Shakespeare’s speaker soon asserts that his beloved is not only “more lovely,” but “more temperate” than a single day (18.1-2). While the beauty of a day can vary even in the summer, the beloved’s temperate loveliness never fluctuates. Rather, preserved by the speaker’s poetry, his beauty stretches beyond the changeability of a single day into an “eternal summer” (18.9).

Integrating Your Quotations

Quotations must be integrated into sentences of your own. They cannot stand alone as a sentence, and they must work with the rest of your sentence in a way that is grammatically correct. Here are some examples:

Wrong: In “Economic Man and Literary Woman,” Robin West claims that literature helps us to understand others. “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (874).

Wrong: In “Economic Man and Literary Woman,” Robin West talks about “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (874).

Right: In “Economic Man and Literary Woman,” Robin West argues that “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (874).

Right: Claiming that “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign,” Robin West positions the use of literary techniques in our interpersonal interactions as enabling us to grasp the experiences of others with whom we have little in common (“Economic” 874).

Sometimes you might have to change some words in the quotation to make it work grammatically with the rest of your sentence. To indicate that you have done so, use square brackets. To indicate that you have omitted words, use ellipses. Here’re some examples:

  • In “Economic Man and Literary Woman,” Robin West represents “Metaphor and narrative [as] the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (874).
  • In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare’s speaker represents his beloved’s beauty as constant and unchanging, telling him: “Thou art … more temperate” (2) than “a summer’s day” (1).

If you feel unsure as to how to integrate a quotation into a sentence, you can always just begin by writing that the author “writes,” “argues,” “contends,” “claims,” “implies,” “suggests,” “explains,” etc. Here’s an example:

As Robin West contends, “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (“Economic” 874).

Make sure that your punctuation fits the sentence construction that you have used. Here are some options:

  • Robin West argues that “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (“Economic” 874).
  • Robin West argues: “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (“Economic” 874).
  • As Robin West argues, “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (“Economic” 874).
  • According to Robin West, “Metaphor and narrative are the means by which we come to understand what was initially foreign” (“Economic” 874).

For more information, consult the UofT Writing website.


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Reading

Ask why you’re opening a book or scholarly article in the first place. You want something–but what? If you’re not sure, there’s a good chance that book or article will suck you in like a swamp and keep you stuck for hours. That’s because you’re letting your sources take charge. Once you wade in, it’s their world, their time, their rules. Don’t let that happen! Instead, venture with purpose.

You may have a thesis statement, you may have a research question, or you may just have a basic topic. All these can help you decide:

What kind of information you want. For example:

Factual evidence
Opinion
Overview


What kind of source you need. For example:

Quantitative studies
Scholarly articles
Government reports
Personal letters
Books

Skimming & Scanning

Once you’ve been to the library and brought home books and scholarly articles, you’ll need to decide what’s worth reading closely. Skimming and scanning can help with this selection. Scanning means glancing quickly and strategically for a specific word, or series of words. Skimming also means glancing quickly and strategically–not for specific words but for general meaning.

Scanning helps you figure out if a chapter may relate to your essay topic, whereas skimming gives you the gist of a reading you’re covering in class tomorrow. Rather than reading every word, or flipping unproductively through a book or article, use scanning and skimming to stand back, either to suss a text’s relevance (in the case of scanning) or its general gist (in the case of skimming). To do that, you pick up a book chapter or article and quickly glance through it for gist or relevance. Focus on:

Tables of Contents
Indexes
Chapter headings
First and last paragraphs of chapters or articles
First sentences of paragraphs
Diagrams, charts, and tables


The Main Idea

In an argumentative paragraph, details support an argument; in a descriptive paragraph, details round out a general topic. In both cases, the writing has a purpose called the gist or main idea. In short, the main idea is the essence of what any communication is about. Think of a keystone at the top of an archway that holds the other stones in place. That’s what a main idea does.

Take, for example, the argument pollution is bad. This statement is a main idea; but facts about the deaths of seabirds from a Gulf of Mexico oilslick and respiratory illnesses due to smog pollution in Los Angeles are details that support this main idea.


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Creating

Developing An Argument (Continued)

By Jordana Greenblatt

Topics

In high school, essay writing tends to be taught in the language of “topics” and “subtopics.” In university, that way of thinking can make it harder both to write an effective thesis statement and to develop a continuous argument in the body of your essay. It encourages you to think in the form of a list.

Imagine you’re going to the grocery store, and you want to remember what to buy. You make a list, but it really doesn’t matter what order the items are in:

Eggs
Milk
Bread

. . . is effectively the same as:
Milk
Eggs
Bread

Many essays using the topic/subtopic premise come out looking a lot like that grocery list. Effectively, you end up producing an essay that looks like this 1st chart on the left. The topics are visualized horizontally, because they don’t really progress. You could rearrange your body topics in any order, and it wouldn’t make much difference. This is the mark of poor argumentation.

An essay with the thesis statement below might look like this 2nd chart below on the right:

argument chart2

In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe criticizes the colonization of the Ibo people through describing pre-colonial Ibo culture, British legal systems, and British violence against the Ibo.

The problem here is that there is no clear sense of how the argument builds from topic to topic (a problem reflected in the structure of the thesis itself which, as you can see from the 3rd chart below, lists subtopics instead of relating them together as part of an overarching argument).

Arguments

In an argumentative essay, your reader should feel as if each paragraph builds on the one before. It shouldn’t feel like the paragraphs could be rearranged. Instead, it should feel like you need to have established the sub-argument you made in the paragraph before to move on the next paragraph and sub-argument.

In the interests of effective argumentation, we might remodel our prospective thesis and essay body as follows in the 4th chart below:

In order to get to each sub-argument of this example essay, the writer needs to establish what s/he does in the preceding paragraph(s). That’s the sign of an overarching argument, rather than simply a list of subtopics, and it is something that you must accomplish in order to write an effective essay.


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Understanding Your Assignment

Understanding what your professor wants is as crucial for your learning as a destination for a traveler. You may not have a map, you may not have a car, you may not have clean water, and you may not have any money, but if you know where you’re going you at least have a chance of getting there. It’s the same with assignments.

Here are 6 tips for getting a good grasp of your assignment.

1. Go to your lectures and tutorials. Just attending and paying attention will give you a good idea what professors expect you to do.

2. Read the assignment instructions and syllabus carefully. Most professors post these in Quercus.

3. If you don’t understand the written instructions in Quercus or the verbal instructions in class, speak to a professor or TA face-to-face. Don’t rely on your classmates: they might not understand either. Visit your professors during office hours and ask them to clarify their expectations.

4. If your professor’s explanation still confuses you, try showing her or him a rough plan of your assignment and ask if you’re on the right track.

5. Try one of the UofT libraries’ online encyclopedias. Say you’re writing a paper on the civil rights’ movement in 1960s America. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences has an article on the movement. Reading it will give you a reliable but accessible overview; key terms, themes, events and names; and–in most encyclopedias–a bibliography of sources you could use to follow up.

6. Ask librarians and writing instructors for help. We may not understand an assignment as well as the professor who wrote it, but we’re familiar with academic assignments enough that we can offer sound advice.

Thesis Statements (Continued)

By Jaclyn Piudik

How Do I Create a Thesis?

Think of your thesis as having two parts:

A Claim to make specific argumentative points rather than sweeping general statements
A Strategy for proving that claim: indicates a theoretical basis and promise of substantial support

The CLAIM of the Thesis

Answers a question of “who, what, where or when”
Offers something the reader can argue against (for example, reader can respond by saying “no, I don’t agree”)
Is of limited value; only a starting point for the thesis

The STRATEGY of the Thesis

Explains “how” or “why” you will develop your argument
Can ‘indirectly’ or ‘directly’ indicate your argumentative strategy
Compels you to be interpretive

Characteristics of a Good Thesis Statement

1. It makes a definite and limited assertion that needs to be explained and supported by further discussion:

David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life is a great Australian novel [Weak].

In his novel An Imaginary Life, David Malouf develops a contrast between a witty Roman poet and a wild child he meets in a primitive colony by the Black Sea [Moderate].

In his novel An Imaginary Life, David Malouf, in developing a contrast between an urbane Roman poet and a wild speechless child, emphasizes the importance of language in forging a connection to others and the world [Strong: Shows Interpretation].

2. It shows the emphasis and indicates the methodology of your argument:

The First World War was caused by political alliances and treaties [Vague].

The origins of the First World War lay in the alliances of Serbia with Russia and France, Germany with Austro-Hungary, and Britain with Belgium [Specific: Shows Strategy].

3. It shows awareness of difficulties and disagreement:

Having an official policy on euthanasia just causes problems, as the Dutch example shows [Sweeping, Vague].

Dutch laws on euthanasia have been rightly praised for their attention to the principles of self-determination. Recent cases, however, show that they have not been able to deal adequately with issues involving technological intervention of unconscious patients. Hamarckian strategies can solve at least the question of assignation of rights [Strong: Shows Strategy].

Thesis Statement FAQs

No. They are related, but not interchangeable. The research question is the first step. It focuses your research on a significant issue, controversy or contradiction, but does not necessarily make a claim.

No. This is the conventional place for a statement of focus, but it is not the only one. Some thesis statements can be made in the opening sentences of an essay. Other papers need more than one paragraph for an introduction.

Yes. Clear, concise writing is the most important rule of thumb, but a complex argument might require more than one sentence.

No. It should show that the essay will discuss and support its argument, but does not need a specific number of points. Use as many or as few points as you need to present a suitably complex and clear argument.

Yes. Some arguments are explicitly opinions and personal speculations, while others are presented in a more objective, neutral way. Whether you use the first person or not will often depend upon the type of essay you are writing. As long as your argument is grounded in evidence and analysis, you need not be too concerned about using the “I.” When in doubt, ask your professor or TA!

Yes. Sometimes when we start to write we have a tentative claim or hypothesis. It is not set in stone. Your thesis statement can evolve as you do your research or as you think through your ideas in the writing process. You can always refine your thesis statement once you have finished your draft to reflect the complexities of your argument.

Test Your Thesis Statement

Does your thesis show depth of thought or is it mainly descriptive?

Does the thesis present an argument and is it worded as an argument?

Is the thesis debatable? Can someone contest your claim?

Does the thesis answer the “so what” question?

Does the thesis address the assigned question?



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Citing


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Fine-Tuning

Revising


By Jaclyn Piudik

More than simply proofreading for errors, revision is a process of evaluating and amending your written work. The word revise comes from Latin and means to look or see again [revisere = to look back at, revisit; revidere = to see again]. While the value of revision is often underestimated, it is a crucial stage of the writing process, one that can change a good essay into a great essay.

Revising will not only help you to become a better writer and a better editor, but it will also help you to become a better thinker! Writing is a way of “thinking on the page” and the revision process will allow you to groom your thoughts, hone your ideas and craft your arguments. During this phase, you can review what you’ve written to make large-scale improvements in structure, organization and content, as well as refinements in style, language and grammar.

Revising is an opportunity:
to determine whether you have fulfilled the purpose of your assignment and responded effectively to the prompt
to examine the logic and the development of your argument
to see if you’ve omitted any important details, if you’ve digressed or integrated extraneous/irrelevant information (and then expand or cut as necessary)
to correct problems at the sentence level (word choice, grammar and sentence structure)


You’ll begin to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your writing in order to build upon what you already do well and make improvements in problem areas. It is true that revision adds to the time you spend on your assignments and it might mean that you will have to rewrite parts of your essay. But the benefits will be worth the extra time and effort!

Leaving yourself the time to revise will also afford you an unexpected freedom in the drafting phase. Knowing that you don’t have to write the perfect essay on your first try, that you can return to it, reshape, reconfigure, adjust and fine-tune it, will make the initial writing a far less stressful and – perhaps surprisingly – more creative, productive process.

Click the In-Depth tab to continue.

Revising (Continued)

By Jaclyn Piudik

Getting Down to Business

Once you have a full working draft, you are ready to begin the revision process.

Hopefully, you’ve left yourself some time; so, try setting your draft aside for a day or two so that you can gain an objective distance from what you’ve written. You’ll come back to it with a fresh perspective and will likely see things that you might otherwise have missed.

1. Main Argument/Idea

A key question to keep in mind as you read through you draft is whether you have formulated and developed an argument that responds to the prompt question and the guidelines of your assignment.

Remember to pay close attention to the prompt words, to the way the instructions are set out: Are you being asked to take a position? Are you being asked to define, explore, discuss?

The language in the prompt will indicate the kind of thinking you are expected to do in your assignment and will help you to determine how your response should be constructed.

Your thesis statement will be the first element to review.

Does it engage with the prompt? Is it specific and unified? Is it significant (i.e. does it introduce a “so what?” factor)? Does it have a claim and a strategy? Does it offer your reader a map of the essay?

A strong thesis statement should suggest the structure of your essay: think of it as a contract that clearly sets out the trajectory or your argument for your audience.

2. Organization of the Body

Reviewing the organization of your essay is crucial in order to see whether you have developed your argument effectively and whether each part of your argument is in the appropriate place.

If you created an outline for your essay, you can use that as a starting point to see how the essay aligns with your initial structure. But sometimes as the essay develops, you might integrate new points or shift your direction slightly; you might have found and incorporated new research or decided on a different order. So it is best not to rely on your original outline.

Try a Reverse Outline instead.

3. Development of the Essay

This stage of the revision process requires close attention to substance, to content.

Remember: You want your reader to see that you understand the material and that you are making the proper connections. However, if something is irrelevant, you can lose ground in what you are trying to argue and at the same time, lose your reader’s attention and comprehension.

4. Flow between Sections

5. Introduction

It is usually best to review your introduction AFTER you review the body of your essay. WHY? Once you’ve combed through the body of your essay, you will have a clear idea of what you’ve actually argued. Your essay might have taken a different direction than you initially intended and the introduction may need to be refined to correspond with the finished draft. It is important, therefore, to make sure that your introduction matches what follows. Even if you didn’t veer from your original vision, its always a good idea to make sure that you get off to a good start.

The introduction of your essay is where you establish its purpose for your reader. It is where you provide background to contextualize the subject and the issue at hand. A successful introduction will offer enough information to lay a foundation for your argument, but will avoid unnecessary details that are better left for the body of the essay as you develop your points. In most essays, the introduction is where you state your thesis (generally – but not always – at or near the end of the introduction).

6. Conclusion

It is a common belief that the conclusion is simply a restatement of your thesis, but it can be used to do much more. While a good conclusion will revisit the essay’s argument, this is where you can consider its broader implications, its relevance or significance. You put a great deal of effort into the 5 or 10 pages you just wrote, so make the ending as interesting as everything that came before it. Don’t leave your reader flat! Here’s your chance to make an impact, to leave an impression on the audience so that they continue to think about your argument even after they put the essay down.

Now we can begin to move in closer to look at the sentence level …

Start with questions of style, keeping in mind that clear, concise writing is always preferable. Streamlining your writing will allow your reader to understand your points, which is the goal of your essay.

Opt for plain language: don’t use fancy language for its own sake.

Repetition

Look for repeated words and phrases and ask yourself whether they are necessary

Variation

Try to vary sentence types and lengths for lively and interesting writing.