Investigative Essay

An essay that investigates an aspect of science, medicine, or technology of your choosing. This essay should not merely inform and explain but should aim to answer a question that motivates the essay. It should situate the topic in a context and make it clear to readers why the topic matters. Readers will expect to hear your own thoughts on your topic.


  • Class #13: Proposal Due
  • Class #15: Revised Proposal and Annotated Bibliography Due
  • Class #18: First Draft Due, Workshop
  • Class #19: Workshop
  • Class #23: Revised Essay Due


  • 8–10 pp. double-spaced (2500–3000 words).
  • At least 8 sources, at least 2 of which must be books, and one must be a journal article. (Most papers will use in the range of 8–12 sources.).
  • A title and 3–4 section headings (NOT “Introduction” or “Conclusion”—those are for technical reports).
  • For all drafts, all sources must be noted in Nature style and a list of References must accompany the paper.
  • For the first draft: Hand in at least 6 pages of coherent work. This may be the first 6 pages of your essay, or it may be 8 pages with [to come: a couple of ¶s on X] inserted along the way.


Write a one paragraph proposal for your long essay. The topic is of your choosing. Keep in mind that this won’t simply be an explanatory or informative essay/article; it should explore an issue and develop your own point of view. It should aim to answer a question. It need not be persuasive, but it may be.

Your proposal should include the following:

  • Name your topic as precisely as you can.
  • Why does this topic interest you?
  • What do you hope to learn through your research and writing?
  • Write the main question you want to answer. Note: Your main question should not simply be a question of information (“What is X?”). It should be a question that requires some interpretation.
  • Why do you think your article will interest readers? Do you have any particular readers in mind?

Revised Proposal and Annotated Bibliography

For the Revised Proposal:

Re-state your main Inquiry Question (that’s a question—not a thesis), and write a short paragraph stating what you hope to learn by your researching and writing, and why you think this will interest readers. Your Inquiry Questions may have changed; that’s fine.

Number and kinds of sources needed:

  • You will probably use around 8–12 sources for this essay; 8 sources is the absolute minimum.
  • Your sources should include at least 2 books, and 1–2 journal articles. 
  • Remember that the New York Times and/or general interest science magazines (New Scientist, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.) can provide useful context for most of your topics.

For the Annotated Bibliography:

Make a list of your six best sources thus far, including:

  • At least 2 books.
  • At least 1 journal article.
  1. List sources thus:
    • For books: Smith, Perry. A Short History of The Cosmos. NY: Utopia Press, 2001.
    • For articles from an anthology, a journal, a magazine or newspaper: Chang, Judy. “Sleep and Depression.” The New Mental Health Reader. Boston: Utopia Press, 2010.
    • For sources from the Web: Author, title, condensed URL, and date accessed.
  2. And then: Describe each source in a sentence, followed by 1–2 sentences that tell why this source will be useful for your project. NOTE: This is the “annotation” part of the assignment. You will not get credit for the assignment without annotation.

A complete list of sources must accompany each draft. Keep track of page numbers of your source material, even though it may not appear in your citation list.


You will need to do some more reading and thinking before you attempt the pre-writing. You can use this list as a template and type your material under each bullet point. You don’t need to attempt to do these things in this order, though starting with a title (even if you change it more than once) might be useful.

  • Make a stab at a title—try 3 or 4, even—anything to get you thinking about the focus of your essay.
  • Make a simple outline: Your main inquiry question followed by 3–4 main section headings and a couple of sentences on what would go under each heading.
  • What might be your “opener” (Hancock)—that is, how do you imagine opening your Introduction?
  • What is the context for your inquiry; how will you frame the exploration? (Another way of saying this: What in our common life does your topic relate to? How might it affect or at least interest readers?)
  • What background do you imagine you will need in order to set up the meat of your discussion?
  • Sketch out a thesis.

Essay Draft

Write an essay that investigates an aspect of science, medicine, or technology of your choosing. This essay should not merely inform and explain but should aim to answer a question that motivates the essay.

  • It should situate the topic in a context and make it clear to readers why the topic matters.
  • It should provide sufficient good evidence. When there are differences of opinion among sources, it should put those sources in conversation with each other.
  • Approach this essay as if it were a magazine-style article like the ones we’ve read by Gawande (“The Pain Perplex”) and Greenwood (“My Great-Great Aunt,”) and others we have read: that is, write in a vivid, engaging way for an audience of “the educated curious.” And do more than inform: let readers know what you think.

Readers will expect to hear your own thoughts on your topic. You do this partly by the way you arrange your discussion, what you emphasize, what you ask readers to “note,” and how you link ideas in transitions (e.g., “While this poses a challenge, most researchers seem to believe that the challenge is well worth solving. Says Pollan, …”).

  • You don’t say, “I think…”—but you include a thesis statement, either at the beginning or toward the end of your essay (the answer to the question).

Your paper may be either exploratory or persuasive but it must answer the question you pose or imply in your introduction. Note: your answer does not need to be a yes or no, thumbs up or down, kind of answer. It may re-frame the issue, and/or pose new questions, as a result of the reading, writing and thinking you have done, as a way of moving the discussion of this topic forward.


Read your classmates’ drafts. Print them out and comment on the draft itself.

  • Underline what looks like the thesis.
  • Indicate sentences or passages that are working well, that capture your interest, that make good points.
  • Indicate where you are having trouble connecting the dots, or understanding the purpose of a passage.
  • Indicate if you think something needs to be cited, or cited differently (you don’t have to do this for every single citation, but if something stands out).
  • List 3 questions you have for the writer.

In class: Use your comments to start your conversation.

  • Begin with what you found most interesting, & what is working well.
  • Make sure to include the questions you have for the writer.
  • Make sure to make it a conversation, not one person giving all their comments and then the other.
  • Leave time for the writer to ask questions.

Revised Essay

This should be a significant revision—a true “re-seeing” of your essay’s purpose, shape, and relationship to readers. Before you hand it in, make sure that it:

  • Has a clear target audience, and engages the audience. 
  • Has a clear thesis.
  • Has a shape that effectively supports your thesis.
  • Has enough trustworthy sources.
  • Has 3–4 section headings and numbered pages.
  • Reflects on evidence and examples, so readers can see “you” in the essay.
  • Uses Nature style for citations within the text and References.
  • Introduces key authors and/or sources (e.g., journal or magazine titles) in the text.

Include the following questions and answers with your revision.

  1. What is your thesis?
  2. Why does your thesis matter? I.e., what’s at stake in this essay?
  3. Who’s your target audience? Why them, especially?
  4. Is there something that needs to get into this essay that isn’t yet there?