Research and Writing Tips

Focusing Your Topic
Perhaps the most important first step you will want to take is to make sure you've narrowed your topic enough to be covered in 700-1,000 words. Once you get writing, you will discover that is fewer words than it might seem to be. And if the topic within the four challenges you're addressing is too broad, your treatment of it will probably come across as superficial and general. The essay readers will think you just skimmed the surface of your subject, and you will lose points for that.

The process of narrowing-down your subject matter will also help you zero in on what the focus of your research should be. Writers today have more research material close at hand than ever before. Using search words to cruise the Internet for relevant information has revolutionized nonfiction writing. But it also has created new dangers, because it is still true that you can’t believe everything you read. When gathering information, stick with reputable sources.

  • Sites that have the suffixes .gov (government) or .edu (educational) are most often most trustworthy.
  • The national organization of the branch of science that is relevant to your topic should be dependable.
  • Online encyclopedias can be dependable.

With some sources, on the other hand, you should be careful with the information you’re getting:

  • Posts or blogs by individuals, particularly if they are not experts who can demonstrate their credentials, are very often undependable, and good to stay away from.
  • Don’t use information from any site that is trying to sell you something.

In general, make sure that any fact you use in your argument is verifiable by at least two or three sources—just as scientists make sure the results of experiments can be independently duplicated before considering them to be valid.

Writing Style
Now, a word about style—writing style. This is to be a "formal" essay, not a personal one, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t let your personality shine through. You have enthusiasm for your topic; let the reader see it. It’s all right to use a little humor, too. It’s a good idea to give your essay immediacy by using brief quotations from experts. And it’s OK—in fact, it’s a plus—to use figures of speech such as similes, metaphors, personification, and alliteration. You may associate those kinds of things more with papers for English class than with science essays, but in fact they enliven any kind of writing.

Look at this paragraph from an essay by the late science writer Lewis Thomas:
Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.

That is an extended example of personification, comparing ants to people—and isn’t it fun to read? And doesn’t it also provide useful information about ants? And doesn’t it make you want to read more? You may not have the experience as a writer that Lewis Thomas had, but you can give your writing flair, too.

Now that you have a general start on your research and writing, see some more specific tips from a previous winning teacher on writing strong Introductions and Conclusions. For additional inspiration, check out the Alumni Profiles to see what past winners had to say about the essay writing process, and read excerpts of Winning Essays from last year’s competition. And make sure you read and understand the Rules before submitting your essay!

You can also see a detailed list of Student Awards, and learn more about the 1986 Challenger Crew, the heroes who inspired this competition.

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