How to Write an Essay on an Unfamiliar Topic

Writing an essay on a topic you know inside and out can often be difficult enough: ask any writer what his/her hobbyhorse is and whether he/she finds it easy to write about it, and you will usually get the same answer: not at all. When you are well familiar with a topic, it opens up from many unexpected perspectives, which leads to all kinds of unobvious challenges.
However, writing about things you have no idea about can be ten times as difficult. You have to spend a lot of extra time researching, you have to be extra careful to avoid silly mistakes that would be obvious for anybody who is more well-versed in the subject matter, you have to navigate in a sea of unknown information. So, how do you do it? Read on, and find out.

1. It Is Difficult, but not Impossible

First, take a deep breath and try to get it into your head that your task is doable. The main hurdle about writing about something unfamiliar is this feeling of being overwhelmed, the “Where do I even begin?” feeling. Get over it, persuade yourself that it is realistic, and stop panicking. Remember, your task is not to achieve a PhD level of knowledge on the subject in the three days you have to write your essay. Your job is to acquire just enough information to write something that appears competent. You do not have to become an expert; you have to sound like one.

2. Spend the Majority of Time Reading

There is no way around it – if you do not know anything about a subject, to rectify this you will have to read about it. Just make sure you prioritize good sources over the bad ones. Let’s say that, for example, you have to write an essay about Japan, but you know virtually nothing about this country. Your first order of business would be to find sources of information that are a) reliable, and b) can be consumed relatively fast.

3. Use Wikipedia

You probably heard repeatedly that you should not use Wikipedia in serious academic work. It is both true and untrue. On the one hand, teachers and professors usually look down upon students who cite Wikipedia. On the other hand, most Wikipedia pages have multiple links to the sources used for writing them, and these are legitimate sources in their own right. Speaking of our essay about Japan, on the relevant Wikipedia page you will find links to sources related to the history, social structure, economics, religion, and many other aspects of this country. Choose what you need and feel free to use them.

4. Use a Variety of Search Terms

Do not limit your search to obvious search terms. Be creative and think of other ways to speak about the subject matter. Again, speaking about Japan, consider extra search terms like “Japanese”, “Japanese religion”, “Japanese population”, “Tokyo” and so on. Expand them as you find more information. In this case, you can include the names of geographical locations, religious groups, historical events, and other things you find out about as you research your subject matter.

5. Use a Variety of Sources

Usually, the best sources to be used for academic writing are peer-reviewed articles from well-established, well-reputed scholarly publications. Ideally, they should build up the bulk of your bibliography. However, do not limit yourself to them. Look for both short and long-form articles, books, online publications, and so on. The more diverse your sources are, the better.

6. Maintain Balance

Avoid overly technical sources that obviously deal with the subject matter on a much deeper level than you are able to understand properly at your current level of knowledge. At the same time, do not spend too much time on overview articles – they tend to repeat more or less the same things, and one or two of them will be more than enough to provide general information about the topic. Once you get basic facts from them, move on to more specialized sources, but make sure you understand all you read. If you run into terms you do not understand, look them up. While you should avoid using too much thematic jargon in your essay, you have to at least understand what your sources are talking about.

7. Read Samples of Similar Papers

A useful step would be to find a well-written sample of an essay on the same or similar topic and see what its author covers and how he/she approaches the task. Of course, you should not copy/paste fragments of this sample or rephrase what you find in it; however, it can be useful in defining the scope of your work and singling out what exactly you should speak about. Looking through the bibliography section can also prove useful – there you will find names of sources that another writer successfully used to write an essay on this subject, and nobody prohibits you from using them as well.

8. Take Notes and Draw Connections

As you read, do not forget to make notes. Jot down important aspects of the topic, especially if they are often referred to in otherwise unconnected sources. Make note of the language that is often repeated, typically used vocabulary terms. As you read, you should start realizing if there is some kind of consensus between the different sources you use. Are there commonly accepted viewpoints? Perhaps there are a few theories that are vying for supremacy? Are there any conclusions different authors consistently come to? Make note of all of them and make connections.

9. Decide What You Want to Write About

Now that you’ve done your research, it is time to start writing. As you read, you probably stumbled upon one or more points that looked particularly interesting, out of place, or unusual. Choose one of them and make it the focus of your essay.

From that moment onward, the process is not much different from any other essay you’ve written so far. Write an outline, expand it, make sure everything is logically connected – and you’ve got your essay.

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