Research Troubleshooting: What, Where, How & Why?

This is part of the Essay Writing Crash Course Blog Series.

Research is the process of gathering information. Throughout your academic career you will be required to do to a fair amount of research. For exams, you will do this process in your exam revision. For coursework, you will do your research before you start planning and definitely before you attempt to start writing an essay. In this blog post I will answer some of the common questions to do with researching. If you would like a more comprehensive lesson in research skills, I would recommend my Essay Writing Crash Course, I have a whole section dedicated to research.

What Are Primary & Secondary Sources?

For any humanities subject, you will need to use a range of sources including primary and secondary sources in your writing. These sources are more familiarly know to your as books, artefacts, articles, your textbooks and class notes for example. 

In order to have a thorough understanding of a topic you will gather a range of primary and secondary* source materials during your research. Primary sources are texts, images, recordings and other materials that were created at the time of study. For example, a poster advertising food during WWII is a primary source if it was created during between 1939-1945. Secondary sources* are those materials created after the time; examples include articles, books and documentaries on the event of people commenting on the event after the time. (In GCSE History primary sources are often just called ‘sources.’ Secondary sources are often referred to as ‘interpretations.’)

Primary Source – Advert (Source: Imperial War Museum)
Secondary Source Example (Source:

Why Do I Need to Use Sources?…

…Because you don’t know everything.

By being aware of the arguments surrounding your given topic you will be able to start  formulating your own ideas. By reading the views of other scholars you will gather ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments and see similarities and differences between them. From this you will start to build your own ideas through assessing the validity of their arguments. This is important so that you can show you have understood the arguments put forward by others and how your argument is better, or how they support your theory.

By using primary source material you are going straight to the source of the information. You can consider your essay as a secondary source, it will provide your reader with information and, potentially, a new way to look a topic. If you do not look at the original sources, you can only rely on second-hand information, the information from other scholars. When you take time to look at and analyse primary sources yourself, you give yourself the ability to come to your own conclusions, to determine whether you agree with a scholars analysis of a certain primary source and why you do or do not. If you don’t know what they are talking about you can’t be sure of your own thoughts on the topic.

Where Can I Find Primary Sources?

Start with your class notes and textbooks. There are often reprints of photographs, newspaper clippings or transcriptions of speeches you can use as sources. Google also presents a great resource for primary sources; museum websites, wikipedia for links to sources (never use wikipedia as a source!) are good starting points. For any projects based on your area, local libraries often have an archives section or will be able to help you locate primary source materials. It takes a little bit of digging but there is always something around!

Where Can I Find Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are your text books, books by scholars, newspaper articles and other materials commenting on the event. Start by ‘googling’ your topic to find links to informative websites, scholarly articles & books (use Google Scholar, Google Books or your university’s online library directory for this), and go to the library! Don’t just rely on your class notes and textbooks, they are a good starting point but are not as in-depth as you will need your research to be in order to write a well thought answer.

How Many Sources Should I Use?

For coursework essays most teachers and lecturers will require about 10 sources with at least 2 primary sources, but depending on the length of the essay you need to write, you may need more. You will need to list them in your bibliography and reference according to your school’s guidelines. Check with your teacher for how many sources they require at a minimum, but as a rule, you need citations for each piece of evidence you reference and every idea you write that is not your own.

How Much Research Should I do?

You should do as much research as you need to present a well thought out argument with enough evidence to write a balanced, analytical and thoroughly researched essay. In other words, how long is a piece of string? 

Roughly speaking, your research and planning stages will take about ⅔  of the time when writing an essay. The first draft should be the the quickest stage, but only as long as you’ve done your research and planning thoroughly.

Final Comments…

Research is the process of gathering information; you will do a lot of learning and thinking during this stage of the essay writing process. There isn’t a set amount of research you should or should not do, it is dependant on how clear and in-depth an answer you want to write. In other words, the more you know and, most importantly, understand, the better you will be able to write an analytical argument in your essay.

Want to learn more about essay writing? Why not check out my essay writing crash course>>

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