Essay writing: How to research essays Video

Video titled: Essay writing: How to research essays Video

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Screencast is about using academic commentary effectively in your essays, which is, really, an essential skill for you to master if you want to do well. When it's done effectively, it can deepen your analysis and allow you to develop some really sophisticated legal arguments in your work, as well as, obviously, showcasing your research skills. But unfortunately, it's often done quite badly. I think that students all understand that they need to include commentary but they're not always clear about how to do this effectively and that's what this clip aims to address.

So we're going to start by looking at a piece of work that has used commentary, but not very well. If we just look at it a moment, the sources there are highlighted in yellow. And if we go through you can see that, you know, there's a fair amount of different sources used here; I think the essay uses seven or eight different pieces of commentary, which isn't unreasonable for a piece of work of this length. It makes a couple of different mistakes, actually, that students often make in relation to using academic sources.

So firstly, what we can see here, we look at this page, each paragraph is making a point and this is an approach which is replicated elsewhere in the essay. So each paragraph is making a point, at the end of which a statement is made: Spousal immunity is justified; spousal immunity should be abolished, and it's linked to a commentator. But this is very general. I mean, these are general statements that don't need authority, as such, in the first place. And these sources just seem to be tacked on the end. If you think about the nuances of the different arguments that these authors would have made in their articles, what's been taken from them is almost a statement, which is almost meaningful in its level of generality. So it would be far better to have found something meaningful that each of these sources had said in their articles and incorporated that into the essay. Perhaps their reasoning, or their views about the advisability of a particular position, not the sort of headline, “should be abolished”, “should be retained”, way that it's been used here. And to a marker this sort of approach makes it look like a source has just been added on to the end without any real engagement from the student. It gives the impression that the source hasn't been understood - In fact, that the source might not even have been read at all. So it's not a really effective way to go about putting authority in.

The other way in which authority is used effectively here is it’s left to speak for itself. So if we come down here we can see quite a long quotation there- starts there, highlighted in purple. And the paragraph in itself makes a good point. It's a valid point, it’s relevant to the essay, it brings in some case law, this argument that it introduces is an important one on the subject matter, but what they've done then is to allow this quotation to make the point and then at the end there's nothing done with it at all. So again, this is quite common. In many ways, the source material has been left to speak for itself. The student has done nothing with it. It isn't integrated. It is not part of the student’s argument. It is an argument in its own right and that's the point of authority really in your essays. Authority is there to strengthen or support your argument. It's not there to make you arguments for you. So what you want to do is to take source material and use it to support what you're saying, not to speak for you. So, here it would have been preferable to have paraphrased the argument and maybe to have taken a shorter quotation from it, but then to have done something with it afterwards.

We can see a rather more effective approach later on in the essay if we look here: so again, a point has been introduced here at the start of a paragraph and then Frost's arguments are summarized and that's better. Certainly, it's better than tacking an authority on to the end. But here something more is done with it, but it's not a great example. And in fact, we need to look at a different essay to see authority used a little bit more effectively.

So here, this is a different essay. A similar approach, a topic is introduced in the first sentence. Then Frost's views are summarised, not quoted, but summarised. And just the act of paraphrasing, rather than quoting, is a way to show your understanding of your source material. So it can be a really good thing to do, to paraphrase what a writer has said. But then what this essay does which makes it a far more effective use of commentary is it adds its own explanation – “in other words” – and then it explains the point that the commentator has made, and then it adds some comment on them: “if this argument is true, then this is what that means, and this is the consequence of the justice system.” So this is a really good way to use commentary. The commentary isn't taking central stage at all, it is there in a supporting role, and that's the whole point really. You should be looking to use commentary to help your arguments. It's a far more sophisticated approach. It shows far better understanding of the source material and of the area of law in general. So you're building on the commentator’s views to make different points of your own. And that's the key to success in an essay, really. The essay is your argument supported by other people, not a summary of other people's arguments.

I think the key takeaway point that I would make about this is that students tend to understand that there is a difference between description and analysis and that it’s analysis that is the complicated part which carries more of the marks. And they think that by dropping commentary in they are being analytical, but they're not: if you just explain someone else's analysis, that doesn't make it your analysis - it's actually just description. It’s description of analysis, but that's not analysis in its own right. So what you have to do is your own analysis supported by other people's commentary, their points, their analysis. But there still has to be your spark of inspiration, your thoughts, your arguments in there. So remember that. Commentary is not the centre stage, it's the supporting role. It is to support your arguments and that is how you will maximise your marks when writing an essay using commentary effectively.