I find that planning an essay before I start writing is the key to producing a well structured and cogent argument, which flows nicely and doesn’t leave your reader confused.
Your argument must be logical, with each step following logically from the previous one and clearly heading towards a defined conclusion. Your thesis statement acts as a starting point for your essay planning as you can base your structure on your main evidence, sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion.
I often find that brainstorming is a fantastic way to organise your evidence and notes into a logical structure. There are some fantastic brainstorming sites available to use. I use bubbl.us because I like the pretty colours, but there are many more to choose from. You could also just use an old-fashioned pen and paper.
Here is an example of how I would brainstorm the example topic:
Planning your essay is a fantastic way to ensure that your writing doesn’t include any superfluous information, or ‘padding’ that isn’t needed in your argument.
In the First Intermediate period example, there are five main sections to the essay:
- Introduction – here you introduce your topic. I usually aim for one or two paragraphs (usually about 10% of your word limit if you have one), using the question as a guide to ‘sum up’ my topic.
EXAMPLE: “The First Intermediate period of ancient Egyptian history has been labelled as a ‘dark age’ by many scholars due to its apparent lack of monumental architecture, and is widely regarded as a period of decline which followed the collapse of the preceding Old Kingdom.” You should then include your thesis statement.
- Evidence 1 – here you examine your first piece of evidence, relating it back to your conclusion as outlined in your thesis statement. The first piece of evidence for the example of the First Intermediate period as a ‘dark age’ is “cultural and political innovation”, so you may have chosen to look at pottery. You need to explain how your evidence sustains your conclusion.
EXAMPLE: “A ‘dark age’ is often defined as a period ‘immediately after the collapse of civilizations or when archaeological evidence suggests a phase of relatively little activity compared with what had been evident in previous times’. Seidlmayer presents the First Intermediate Period as not only a time of crisis, but also a time of new societal and cultural development. He examines the changing shape and style of pottery and states that the drop-like pots produced in the First Intermediate Period served the purpose of reducing the workload of the potter and to increase the productivity of the potter’s wheel. He highlights that the two hundred year gap between the introduction of the potter’s wheel and this advancement in productivity signifies that the act of breaking with tradition to increase efficiency became possible only with the evolution of the First Intermediate Period. Seidlmayer also presents evidence of a growing variety of objects produced explicitly for funerary purposes and states that many of these objects are crudely made and ‘ugly’. This has lead many historians to term the First Intermediate Period as a ‘dark age’ in terms of a decline in culture however, it seems to point more to a time of opportunity and cultural advancement.”
- Evidence 2 – just as you did for Evidence 1, explain how this evidence sustains your conclusion.
- Evidence 3 – just as you did for Evidence 1 and 2, explain how this evidence sustains your conclusion (I really cannot stress this enough!).
- Conclusion – here you sum up your main evidence and your conclusion (obviously). Again, I aim for about 10% of my word limit.
EXAMPLE: “Until the preceding Old Kingdom period has been justified as ‘collapsing’, the First Intermediate Period could not reside under the classification of a ‘dark age’ according to the definitions examined. Even if new evidence could determine that the fall of the Old Kingdom was a collapse, it would still be unjustifiable to term the First Intermediate Period a ‘dark age’ due to the cultural developments that are evident. Far from being a ‘phase of relatively little activity’, it is clear that opportunities were consciously taken to break away from the tradition of the Old Kingdom. In this respect, it does not seem plausible or fair to brand an era of opportunistic creativity as declining in any way.”
The conclusion is not a place for bringing in new evidence. Everything you talk about in your conclusion should already be in your essay. The conclusion is the place to sum up your entire argument and reiterate the reasons why you have reached your conclusion.
You should now be well on your way to confidently researching Egypt and writing up your findings. Here are a few more useful tips and tools:
Referencing: You MUST cite your sources to avoid accusations of plagiarism. I use the Harvard (in text) referencing system rather than footnote/Oxford referencing. It’s a matter of personal choice unless you have been given strict guidelines. An excellent guide to the Harvard system can be found here. And and excellent guide to footnote/Oxford referencing can be found here.
WorldCat: This is a fantastic online resource for referencing and bibliographies, as well as for the actual research phase. You can search for a book, and it tells you which libraries across the globe hold that particular volume, highlighting the nearest copy to you if you input your postal code/location. This is particularly useful for seeking inter-library loans. WorldCat also allows you to copy the bibliographical information for each book which can then be pasted into your work. It does require a little editing, i.e. getting rid of the block capitals for the author’s surname, but it allows you to choose the system of referencing that you want to use.
First-person pronouns: I avoid these in my research papers because I feel it gives a far more academic and professional feel to my writing. Compare:
- “I do not believe that the First Intermediate period should be considered to be a ‘dark age’ due to the cultural and political innovations that are evident during the period.”
- “The First Intermediate period should not be considered to be a ‘dark age’ due to the cultural and political innovations that are evident during the period.”
Which sounds more professional to you? Which is more persuasive?
That pretty much wraps things up here. I hope that you have found this series useful and that my tips will help you when researching Egypt. I hope that you will grow to love the research process as much as I do. If you have any further questions or comments, please do post them.