Three steps to writing an academic essay:
Research the topic
Thinking like an academic means doing the research. To try to access the crucial ideas, brainstorm the question. Make a list, no matter how confused or untidy, of all the ideas and questions that come to your mind.
Listen and talk to your tutor. What are the key ideas, authors, books mentioned in lectures?
Look at your reading list. Which books has your tutor recommended as most important? Use the library to find books and print journals. Books that are more relevant or popular may well be available on restricted loan.
When in the library, you can search in the electronic journals, using keywords from your title. Don't forget to put inverted commas around key phrases, so that the search engine looks for the complete phrases and not just for individual words. For example, if you are researching the History essay mentioned in Step One, you might enter: “representations of racial otherness” and “nineteenth century colonialism”. (For both the electronic journal searches, you may need your Athens ID and password, a privilege of belonging to a University.)
You will also use Google, and Google Scholar. Google Scholar is a parallel universe of Google, and contains only the better academic books and papers. To access Google Scholar, just enter “Scholar” in the Google search box and press enter. Again, it's worth entering the key terms of your assignment, as explained above.
Find sites that offer particularly well focused information for students. Don’t forget Wikipedia – always a good starting point for a search, though you should reference the article sources and not the Wikipedia article itself.
Make notes as you go along, either electronically or on paper. One idea will lead to another. You will have to do plenty of fast reading (skimming and scanning, using the contents page and the index) to develop these ideas.
Your aim is to become the master of your subject. Any information that helps you to do that is legitimate. However, a subject master does not plagiarise or use other people’s work without attribution.
Eventually you will have pages of notes, until something magical will occur: the trees will become a wood, you will begin to see connections, things will begin to drop into place, you will be able to group your ideas into categories and see the relations between them. And you will be able to write the all-important thesis statement that your essay will ‘prove’ and illustrate.
To see how to do this, go to Step 3.