After you receive your assignment description, it's tempting to start to look for resources right away to learn as much as possible about the topic. There are two problems with this approach:
A. It doesn't give you an opportunity to think about what you already know about the topic before you start filling your thoughts with other people's ideas;
B. It is easy to become totally overwhelmed and frustrated by how much research is available.
Since the point of an essay is for you to tell your reader your ideas on a topic, versus just repeating other people's ideas, it is important that you first decide what you think you might want to focus on before you start searching through the Library databases or the Internet. At this stage, it's normal that your ideas are quite broad, but you have to figure out what you already know from your readings, discussions, and your own experiences before you can identify what you don't know and need to research.
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By choosing directions for your research, you can keep your research contained to what is relevant and useful for your paper. Otherwise, it's easy to end up doing enough research to write a thesis when all you're trying to write is a five-page paper. It can be as challenging to manage too much information as it is to have too little information or not enough facts to prove your argument.
Your plan will change as you learn more about your topic, but having a starting direction for your process gives you a scope and a direction for your research and writing. See Planning the Paper for more information.