How to Write a Research Essay in Film and Theatre Studies: A Complete Guide for You

Writing guide
Posted on April 23, 2020

A research essay is a typical assignment both for college and high school – whatever discipline you study, you can expect to deal with this sort of work at least occasionally, with film and theatre studies being no exception. This guide walks you through the entire process of writing such an essay without having to learn from your own mistakes.

A research essay is, in many respects, similar to a usual research paper. The most notable difference is the size – while a research paper is, at least in theory, can be as long as its author wants it be, a research essay is much more limited in its scope. The definition of what constitutes an essay differs from college to college, but usually it will not be longer than 2,000-2,500 words. This puts certain restrictions on what you can write and how you should approach your task.

The purpose of a research essay is to ask a question that either nobody asked before or pick a question that may have been thoroughly covered by other scholars but use different methods or evidence when studying it and thus coming to different conclusions.

Film and theatre studies pose additional challenges in this respect, because this discipline is relatively subjective and is open to multiple interpretations – you have to consider it when building up your argument.


  1. Study the Instructions
  2. Define a Topic
  3. Do Preliminary Research
  4. Find Reliable Sources
  5. Write a Thesis Statement


  1. Start with an Outline
  2. Structure Your Essay Properly
  3. Write the First Draft
  4. Be Careful with Quotations


  1. Edit the Essay for Content
  2. Excise the Superficial
  3. Edit for Grammar and Spelling

Pre-writing Stage

1. Study the Instructions

This step may sound self-evident, but you will be amazed how many students skip over it or read the instructions perfunctorily, not wanting to waste the time they may spend writing.
Read the assignment carefully and slowly, making sure you understand every word and do not miss any vital details. If the instructions are long, you may want to rewrite them in short using your own words. Ask your instructor for clarifications if you are not sure about anything. Pay special attention to the grading criteria.

2. Define a Topic

You can look for an interesting topic in a variety of ways, so do whatever works for you. To a huge extent it depends on the amount of freedom you have in this respect – sometimes your instructor assigns you a topic, sometimes only gives you a general direction in which to proceed. Some things you may try are:

  • Freewriting – define the general area of your research, then simply write down everything that comes into your mind for a few minutes. You can use the resulting notes to define what interests you about this area of knowledge and how you can approach it;
  • Study the existing research. Firstly, you have to do it to know the topics you should avoid because somebody already wrote thorough papers on them. Secondly, it can inspire you for your own work. Many research papers contain discussion or recommendation sections that indicate promising directions and topics for research;
  • Discuss it with your instructor. If you already have a vague idea of what you want to write about, he/she can help you achieve a greater degree of clarity.

In your choice of a topic, you should pay attention to the following criteria:

  • Personal interest. The best research essays are written about the topics that genuinely interest their authors;
  • Originality. Study the existing body of research to try and identify a gap in it. One of the primary requirements to research essays is that they should add something new, something that was not covered in previous works;
  • Assignment requirements. Check if your topic meets all the criteria presented in the assignment instructions;
  • Your ability to research it. Even a very interesting topic will not be any good if you lack the capacity to research it. You may not have access to the necessary sources, the topic itself may be too obscure and lacking in any significant research covering it, or it may be too broad to be covered in a single essay.

Eventually, you should end up with a topic like this:

  • The Most Efficient Methods for Assessing the Audience’s Experience of a Theatre Production;
  • Evaluation of a Theatre Performance in Terms of Emotive Impact on the Audience;
  • The Effects of Acting on Stage as Opposed to Acting During Rehearsals;
  • The Merchant of Venice: Is Shylock More Sinned Against than Sinning?
  • Alternative Methods of Actor’s Performance Assessment in Professional Actor Education.

3. Do Preliminary Research

In case of research essays, writing comes as a final step, after you already did a lot of reading and organized your findings. Do not be in a hurry to start writing lest you have to rewrite parts of your essay again and again after finding new information.

So what are the specifics of looking for data when writing a research essay in film and theatre studies? Firstly, you should accept that you will not be able to read every source on the subject matter. One of the characteristic features of research essay writing is that you have to process a huge number of sources to prepare a fairly short assignment within a limited period of time. There may be a few dozen viable sources on the topic and just a few days to get acquainted with them and write the essay. So get comfortable with the idea of skimming through: do not try to read every word. Look through the table of contents and focus on parts that may contain useful info. Read first sentences of paragraphs to get the general idea what they are about. You will miss something, of course, but will be able to cover more sources.

4. Find Reliable Sources

Your main concern should not be with finding as many sources as possible, but with finding sources you can trust. Contrary to what you may have heard, there is nothing wrong about using Wikipedia when researching – however, you should not refer to it or take anything written in it for granted. Instead, read the corresponding articles to get the general idea of the topic and take note of the sources it refers to. These sources have good chances of containing reliable information. Other ways of finding data include:

  • Consulting your instructor;
  • Studying your library’s catalog;
  • Talking to a librarian (especially if your library has a dedicated films and theatre studies section) and a consultant specializing in it;
  • Using an online academic database (Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic and EBSCO are among the most popular choices).

5. Write a Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is a central part of your essay – it contains it general message, the idea you are trying to prove, understand or explain. The rest of the essay either leads up to it or elaborates on what it says. However, it would be wrong to say that it simply answers the question, “What is the essay about?”. It may be a starting point, but a thesis statement is more than that. In addition, it should:

  • Avoid subjectivity. Do not use expressions like “I think”, “I will write about”;
  • Be definite. Avoid vague language, make sure your position is clear. Do not be afraid to make a strong statement;
  • Be arguable. Arguable not in the sense of “doubtful” or “controversial”, but in the sense that a reasonable and well-informed person can disagree with it. Something like “Shakespeare greatly influenced the development of Western theatre” is self-evident and, therefore, cannot be a thesis statement;
  • Be short. A single sentence, no more than 30-35 words long.

Writing the Essay

1. Start with an Outline

An outline is a written plan of your essay. How you write it may depend on the task and on how familiar you are with the topic. Sometimes your instructor may ask you the submit the outline before you are allowed to proceed with writing the essay proper, but even if you do not have to prepare one, it is a useful step.

The main purpose of the outline is to determine the structure of your paper and to make sure you stick to it. You may think that you know what you are going to say now, but you may forget to mention an important point, only to remember it an hour later and understand that to reintroduce it you have to rewrite half an essay.

2. Structure Your Essay Properly

Irrespectively of the discipline, research essays are usually structured in the same way:

  • Introduction:
    • Hook – the first sentence aiming to grasp the reader’s attention;
    • Background information – anything you need the reader to know before he/she can understand your argument;
    • Thesis statement – your main point, boiled down to one sentence;
  • Body paragraphs. Each paragraph covers a single supporting point behind your argument and consists of:
    • Topic sentence – the first sentence introducing the topic of the paragraph;
    • Evidence – information you use to prove your point. Your quotations from relevant sources, paraphrases, statistical data, examples, etc. go here;
    • Summary – a long paragraph may need summarizing and tying back to the main contents of the paper;
  • Conclusion:
    • Summary of your argument – do not introduce new information, simply retell the main info and how you achieved your conclusions in a concise manner;
    • Importance – point out why your research is important and what new data it brings into the existing body of research;
    • Recommendations – consider possible future research that is beyond the scope of your current essay.

3. Write the First Draft

After you have an outline, simply expand on it and write the first draft. Do not strive for perfectionism at this point. Better write the essay to completion than spend time trying to find a perfect word or expression. You will have enough time to polish your essay later; right now, your purpose is to tell everything you have to say and make sure the essay works as a whole.

4. Be Careful with Quotations

Accusation of plagiarism is the worst thing that can happen to a college student, and you have to be particularly careful about the sources you use. You cannot do without them, and every time you quote or paraphrase one of them, always mention the source. However, if something you state is your own idea or a well-known fact (i.e., it is stated, without credit, in three or more sources) you do not have to mention where it comes from as well.


1. Edit the Essay for Content

When you edit and proofreading your work, start at higher levels and proceed to minute details. Namely, start with checking if you are satisfied with how your essay works as a whole. Is it logically consistent? Do you jump to conclusions without providing sufficient evidence? Are there gaps in your reasoning? Did you forget mentioning an important point? Is the order in which individual parts follow each other truly optimal? Does the essay need rearranging?

2. Excise the Superficial

You can almost always improve your essay by removing something. Excessive words, sentences or even paragraphs – everything is fair game as long as it does not move your argument forward. Reread the essay with this idea in mind and ask yourself if each element serves a purpose. If it is present only to bloat the word count or because you like a particular turn of phrase, remove it without mercy.

3. Edit for Grammar and Spelling

Your instructors expect your grammar and spelling to be if not perfect, then at least almost completely devoid of obvious mistakes. Make a list of your most common mistakes and reread the essay, each time focusing on a particular type. Some tools (like online grammar checkers and even spellchecker in your word processor of choice) can be of some help, but do not trust them too much – they are, at best, capable of noticing common mistakes that elude your attention. When it comes to more complex grammatical structures, they are almost completely helpless.

Film and theatre studies is a complex structure tightly intertwined with multiple other disciplines, including psychology, literature, English and so on. Writing a high-quality research essay on this subject can be an intimidating task, especially if you have not done it before. We hope that this guide can help you better cope with this problem the next time you encounter such an assignment.

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