Online Writing Lab

The Investigative Essay

An investigative essay is often used as a precursor to an argumentative essayIt is often similar to a research essay, but the difference is that most investigative essays allow for some form of personal experiences and/or opinions.  In other words, the focus should be on performing research and using outside sources, but other sources may be incorporated as well.  As always, be sure to speak with your instructor for the exact guidelines of your investigative essay. 

The primary goal of an investigative essay is to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the subject in an unbiased manner.   Doing this requires performing significant research, interpreting the research and presenting it in an organized manner throughout the essay, and being able to articulate the various viewpoints of the issue. 

The key to the investigative essay is to begin with a legitimate question to research.  Doing this allows the writer to keep an open mind throughout the process.  On the other hand, if a writer chooses an issue in which he/she has already made up his mind about, objectivity may be lost.  For example, if a writer wants to investigate whether the current cell phone laws while driving are effective or not, it is better if the writer truly isn’t sure instead of already assuming that they are (or aren’t).

Topic Selection

As mentioned above, the writer should pick a topic that she has not already made up her mind about.  Aside from this, it is also important that the topic be current, debatable, researchable, and manageable. 

A current topic is one that has not been over-debated and is still being decided by society.  Most writers and readers are sick of topics that have been debated for years: abortion, the death penalty, the legalization of marijuana, etc. 

A debatable topic is one that has differing viewpoints.  In other words, it is a controversial issue.  Writing about how child abuse has consequences for society is not debatable since no one would disagree with this thesis.  On the other hand, debating whether the punishments for child abusers are effective or not in deterring crime is debatable.

A researchable topic is one in which the writer can find a variety of credible and current sources.  In other words, the writer needs to be able to find unbiased research performed by qualified individuals to help answer the initial question.  

A manageable topic is one that can be successfully performed within the page requirements of the essay.  Writing about widespread issues such as national or global problems is often unmanageable in a several page essay.  For instance, it is not possible to investigate possible solutions to solve world hunger in several pages.  It may, however, be possible to investigate whether a particular city or county program is effective in dealing with localized poverty. 

If a particular topic meets all of the above criteria, it should make for an appropriate topic to investigate.

Note: An investigative essay is sometimes referred to as a pro/con essay, although a pro/con essay can also be slightly different.  Regardless, the underlying goal is the same: to present several sides of an issue without taking a stand.