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Writing An Essay: Personal Reflections Or Vigorous Research?

Writing An Essay: Personal Reflections Or Vigorous Research?

research for writingShould an essay be the result of the author’s personal and independent thoughts or the outcome of thorough scholarly research?

Have you ever asked yourself or someone else this question? It’s a rather simple query, but no simple answer goes with.

Earlier this week, one reader of Naija Writers’ Coach messaged me: I want to ask that can we write essays without reading literature? Or we have to read literature for the topic of essay and after that we should start writing…please enlighten me”. Maybe the question applies to you too.

In reality, a one-size-fits-all answer to it can only be misleading. The answer is neither option A nor B.

The right answer depends on your level of familiarity with the topic and the details of the competition including the topic, objectives and other specific instructions.

When your ideas should rule

If the organizers say the judges would be looking for originality, creativity, innovation, intuitiveness, ingenuity and all other such qualities, then you can bet your own thoughts and ideas are majorly or only what’s needed.

The topic can also suggest this. For instance, if the topic is “Creating the future I want,” you would be writing about your dreams, practical aspirations and subjective ideas, and you may need very little or no scholarly research.

Another instance is the 2013 Concern Creative Writing Competition. One of the topics is “Give a speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for improving the lives of the world poorest people”. Doing justice to this hardly requires avidly reading any literature.

There can also be an implicit guide in the essay guidelines. A shining example is the 2012 Carnegie Council International Essay Competition on the topic, “In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?” The rubrics required all entries to be written as “Op-ed style (not academic, footnoted papers)”. This directive suggests that the essay should stem more from the author’s independent thoughts than from existing literature.

When your success rests on research

Some essay contest rules would specify that in-depth research, copious usage of relevant facts and figures and a robust review of relevant literature on the topic would be the hallmark of the winning essay.

What does that mean to you?

It’s a way of saying your essay should be the outcome of vigorous research, that your claims should be backed up by cogent, objective and verifiable data, referenced facts and figures, not a documentation of what you think.

The need for research may sometimes be implied. For instance, the 2013 Eisaku Sato Essay Contest which stipulated that all entries “must have reference notes and bibliographies if other authors’ works are cited” implicitly requires much research and deep examination of others’ works.

But don’t drown your own voice

One mistake I see many essayists make in essays where research is emphasized is an omission to take a stand. They cite many pieces of literature without saying which they agree or disagree with based on stated reasons, and without bringing any new dimension to the issue.

That’s not how to write an essay that wins.

Even in the midst of making research, you shouldn’t bury your own view or voice. The proper approach is to take a position stemming from your research and give innovative recommendations to address whatever problems your essay seeks to understand and analyze.

Research remains vital

In any way, research is an essential part of the writing process and it pays to be an avid reader. The rule of thumb is to determine or infer which side of the scale to tilt based on the essay rubrics. But where you’re given a blank cheque, striking a balance becomes the safest approach.

You’ll then ensure your essay isn’t just confined to the library…citing many materials and statistics without relating it to practical, real-life situations. In the same vein, you won’t just make sweeping, subjective assertions which enjoy little or no known statistical back-up.

Have your say…

Have you ever been stuck discerning how to balance your opinion with your research findings while writing an essay? How did you sidestep the impasse? Do you agree or disagree with any of the tips you’ve just read? Let’s have your response in the comment section.

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About Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin

Writer. Difference Maker. Entrepreneur. Author, Your Right To Write & Vertical Writing. Winner, 11 Writing Prizes.


  1. okebunmi says:

    Its pretty amazing how you have become an erudite in the act of writing essays….Good job done bro, very elucidating…but i needed to ask this question and i hope u will give me a feedback to it asap….i needed to get some statistics concernin an essay i’m writing, for instance the number of current wars in Africa and some other statistics, but I cudnt get a satisfying answer on google and even on the UN’s website…please help..thanks.

    • Hello Okebunmi,
      Thanks for your nice words. Your question relates to the tips of making research online to gather relevant materials. The most common mistake I see people make in this regard is to search for sentences (e.g. “which wars have been fought in Africa between 2000 and 2012?”). Such an approach is wrong. To get relevant results, you must search with only keywords (e.g. “wars Africa 2009,” “crises Somalia,” “Tunisia political instability,” etc.) not with sentences as search engines don’t understand sentences.
      If you’re not in too much haste, your question will be fully addressed and we’ll look at how to make site search, title search, etc. in the next weekly writing tutorial which will be published on Friday, 15 March, 2013.

  2. lawal Abimbola says:

    I got to know you through MTN message sent to mobile phone; on how to get job experience. Back in my days in the University, I used to write for my editorial board and I did a magazine for my department. I really love writing, that I always look for means to explore myself in this spacious world. If there is any way you could be of help I will be very grateful sir. Thanks.

    • Hi Lawal,
      You’re welcome to Naija Writers’ Coach. I encourage you to take shots at entering essay contests as that will keep you writing always and with deadlines to beat. If you need help with critique or editing of your writing, or have other speccific needs, feel free to let me know.

  3. Abdulgafar says:

    Yes, I get to know another essential fact in writting, alhamdulillah. Indeed, this web site is not a doubt an illuminated light shedding on any darkness contain in writting an eye catching and meaningful essay. Awaiting the next unfold on writting, insha Allah.

  4. jiderricsson says:

    good work bro…ur website av been helpful in my recent conquests as a writer…2nd runners up BSN/NYSC Essay competition, 2nd runners up Yakubu Gowon Foundation/ national orientation agency essay competition…those two can nau be added to my citation////thnks…hoping to get to knw you d more!peace

  5. Tohir Olaitan says:

    Thank u for another lesson today.

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