A research essay is a smaller version of a research paper. Most of the differences between them result from their respective sizes. Although a research essay uses more or less the same approaches and methods as a typical research paper, it has to get to the point faster. When you have only 1,000 or 2,000 words to work with, you cannot afford to spend a lot of space leading up to the topic of your work or use multiple quotations from primary sources. You cannot use all the sources you want and have to be selective, only mentioning the ones that move your point forward most effectively.
The primary purpose of a research essay is to delve into a previously uninvestigated area of knowledge and apply accepted methods of reasoning and study to emerge with conclusions that either prove or disprove an idea you started out with. In terms of criminal justice, you are likely to deal with past cases, specifics of legal systems, their effectiveness and potential improvement. These are, by definition, sensitive topics, and you have to be careful when making propositions and inferring conclusions. Backing up your statements and ideas with viable evidence from reliable sources is a must.
In this guide, we will cover all the aspects of writing a research essay in criminal justice from its inception to polishing it after it is finished.
BEFORE YOU START WRITING
- Choose a Topic
- Carry out Preliminary Research
- Gather Information Sources
- Develop Your Thesis Statement
- Prepare an Outline
REVISION AND PROOFREADING
- Take a Break
- Check the Overall Structure and Organization
- Eliminate the Superficial
- Check Your Essay on Paragraph Level
- Check Sentence-Level Concerns
- Check Formatting
Before You Start Writing
1. Choose a Topic
Selecting a topic for your essay does not happen separately from the rest of your work – it is an important part of research process, and you should learn to treat it as such. Do not feel obliged to pick a topic and follow it to the letter throughout the rest of your work. The topic you choose in the beginning is nothing more than a tentative direction of your research – as you proceed further, you can modify it depending on what information you find and what conclusions you reach. You may have to change the topic and the title of your essay after you complete it, and it is a normal practice. In other words, you choose the topic to get your started and pick a general direction in which to proceed, not to limit yourself. Here are a few tips on how best to do it:
- Ask yourself, what genuinely interests you about your current course? It is a good idea to write down interesting ideas as you study so that you do not have to wrack your brains every time you have to choose a topic;
- Try one of multiple brainstorming techniques, such as mind mapping or rapid ideation;
- Before you proceed to work on a topic, check the available sources of information, primarily books by authoritative authors and scholarly articles. You are after two things: firstly, there should be enough background reference material for you to use in your work. Secondly, avoid choosing topics similar or identical to the ones previously researched by other authors;
- Be realistic – the topic should be manageable and suitable for the assignment in question. A research essay is a short paper, so try to pick a topic you will be able to cover comprehensively without exceeding the word count and cutting any corners.
Here are some examples of what you should aim at:
- The Ethicality of Retributive Punishment;
- Causes of Violence on College Campuses;
- Private Prisons: Benefits and Disadvantages;
- Methods of Combating Human Trafficking in Modern America;
- Drunk Driving: The Efficiency of Preventive and Retributive Measures.
2. Carry out Preliminary Research
Before you start researching your topic in earnest, before you even finalize it, you should conduct preliminary research to find out if the direction you chose is viable. Look through the most obvious sources of information on the topic. Pay attention to any ongoing scholarly discussions related to the topic. You may find an issue you will be able to focus your paper around – if so, modify your topic to better reflect it.
If you have any pre-existing ideas on the subject matter, look for the sources that can verify or disprove them. In fact, you should specifically look for sources contradicting your points of view to avoid confirmation bias. It is better to find a flaw in your argument before you start writing than after you have finished. Do you notice issues that other researchers tend to overlook when talking about your topic? Can you offer a unique approach to the subject matter? Have there been any recent developments or changes that may warrant additional research?
3. Gather Information Sources
As any discipline that deals with real-world issues, criminal justice is heavily dependent on primary sources – in this case, these will be legal documents, protocols of court proceedings, court rulings, laws and so on. Whatever your topic is, you should make sure to have a solid body of evidence to back you up, without relying exclusively on the findings of other scholars. Here are a few approaches to looking for relevant data:
- Go through the bibliography sections of your textbooks. Take note of the names that appear more than once – they are likely to belong to important authorities on the subject matter;
- Ask your instructor to indicate publications that can help you in your research;
- Look in a library. Most libraries today have electronic catalogues that allow you to use keyword searches, so prepare a list of keywords most relevant to your topic;
- Use an online academic database (EBSCO, Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic for more general searches, National Criminal Justice Reference Service for publications related directly to the discipline in question).
4. Develop Your Thesis Statement
A thesis statement is a statement that expresses the central idea of your essay. It establishes its purpose, the position you take on the subject matter and proposes an argument you intend to prove. It is different from a research question – if your essay is built around a question you asked yourself in the beginning of your research, your thesis statement serves as the answer to it. E.g., if your research question is ‘Are there any significant flaws in the currently existing jury selection process?’, your thesis statement may be ‘Current American approach to jury selection has a few glaring flaws that I intend to address in my essay’.
5. Prepare an Outline
An outline is, simply put, a plan of your essay, a guide you will consult when writing to avoid forgetting crucial points and making sure you follow a pre-determined structure when penning your paper. In its most basic form, it is a list of the most important topics, arguments and pieces of evidence to use in the essay. If you want, you can be more thorough and prepare a plan so detailed that it will require just a bit of fleshing out to be considered a complete essay.
1. Following the Right Paragraph Structure
The most important aspect of writing a compelling and effective research essay in criminal justice is learning the right way to organize your body paragraphs. While some variation is possible, usually they are structured in the following way:
- Topic sentence – the first sentence of the paragraph, it introduces its topic. If all topic sentences are written clearly, it makes navigating the essay that much easier;
- Background – if understanding the point requires background knowledge the reader may not have, you have to introduce it. Do not go overboard, though – provide the bare minimum of information;
- Evidence – one or more sentences introducing the evidence to back your point up. It can be a quotation or a paraphrase from a source, a statistic or logical reasoning;
- Examples – one or more examples demonstrating that what you state in the previous section is not just your conjecture;
- Explanation of the examples – explanation of how the examples support your point of view and why they are significant;
- Summary – if the paragraph is long and contains a lot of evidence, you may want to summarize what you said so far to make sure the reader understands everything.
2. Write the Introduction
Criminal justice is an intensely practical discipline, which means that you have to demonstrate as early as possible that your essay has more than just an academic interest. That is why the purpose of the introduction is to primarily answer three questions:
- What? Explain what you intend to write about, provide background information for the audience, define the main terms relevant to the field of study, delineate the existing body of research on the topic. Larger essays may need a full-scale literature review – i.e., an enumeration and evaluation of the most important works dealing with the general area of your research;
- Why? Why is your research important? What new insights do you offer? What important questions do you help to answer?
- How? How will you proceed with your research? What will you discuss?
Do not try to write the introduction first (or write a placeholder introduction with the intention to replace it later). Start with the body paragraphs and then write the introduction already knowing how your argument will develop.
3. Write the Conclusion
Here you give the reader a sense of closure by explaining how you carried out your argument and how your evidence led you to the results you made. Recap the issues covered in the introduction, summarize your research from the body paragraphs and show how it all comes together to build a foundation under your thesis statement. You may also address potential issues raised by your research and possible future investigation they warrant.
At this point, you no longer should introduce any new information – if you remember something the reader needs to fully understand your argument, find a way to introduce it into the body paragraphs.
Revision and Proofreading
1. Take a Break
Aim to finish your essay at least a few days before the deadline – this will give you enough time to take a break from working on it so that you can see it with a fresh perspective. The longer this break is, the better.
2. Check the Overall Structure and Organization
When you proofread your essays, always start at the highest organizational level and check if they work as intended as a whole. Read the entire essay and try to imagine that you are doing it for the first time. Do the parts logically follow each other? Do you connect them to each other smoothly? Are there any gaps in your logic? Do you give enough evidence to back up your reasoning? Did you miss anything crucial for understanding the main points or for proving them?
3. Eliminate the Superficial
It is often said that cutting away the superficial is an even more important aspect of good writing than adding what is necessary. Reread your essay and ask yourself about everything whether you really need it. It can be superficial words (adjectives and adverbs are the most common offenders, as are the so-called weasel words), sentences and entire paragraphs. Be critical of your writing when revising. If something does not move your argument forward, remove it without mercy.
4. Check Your Essay on Paragraph Level
Now that you have the general structure figured out, you can polish your writing on a finer level. Check how paragraphs interact with each other, if topic sentences in the body paragraphs effectively introduce ideas covered in them, if you use enough supporting details to back up your generalizations. See if any paragraphs are too long and complex and therefore require summarizations. Add transitions between paragraphs and essay sections to ensure your text flows smoothly.
5. Check Sentence-Level Concerns
Finally, spend some time checking your essay for sentence-level issues: choice of words, structure of individual sentences, punctuation, grammar and spelling. Do not do any deliberate sentence-level proofreading up until this point – if you end up making significant alterations to your essay, you will have to repeat detailed proofreading, so spending time on it now is meaningless.
6. Check Formatting
See if you used the same formatting and citation system consistently throughout your essay. Pay attention to things like quotations, endnotes, footnotes, pagination and accuracy of your bibliography list.
Follow this guide, and writing research essays in criminal justice will no longer look like such a daunting task!