Planning and Writing a Research Paper

Ask a Research Question

Many students have difficulty writing a research paper because they begin with a topic or subject area rather than with a question whose answer matters to them. A lively and curious student often has questions that the material in the course does not readily answer. Asking these questions and seeking answers reflect intellectual and emotional engagement with the subject matter. When we perform research, we enter the community of scholars who, before us, sought to answer questions for themselves and others. We set out on a journey of discovery that draws us into the ongoing conversation about that subject matter.

To get you started on your research question, you might want to brainstorm some ideas that interest you. Using the idea-generating techniques from chapter 3, generate some questions you might want to explore. You can brainstorm with a classmate or coworker or even ask your instructor for suggestions, but the question you generate is the one you will be invested in answering. Ask questions that lead you to a variety of rich sources so that you have plenty of material and interesting ideas from which to choose. Choosing a topic for which resources are very limited may lead to a summary paper rather than a true research paper. You want to look for research where other writers have taken the issues seriously and spent time writing about them. This will help you focus on the significant, interesting issues.

As you explore the questions you might want to answer, keep in mind that your question and research should be sized to fit the assignment you have been given. Keep the scope of your research manageable. Ask a question that will lead you into your research—a specific, concrete question that will help you devise a working thesis and give you direction for your information search.

When you have tentatively decided on your research question and your working thesis, answer these questions to test your research inquiry:

  • Is the scope of the question appropriate for the assignment?

  • Is my question concrete and specific so that I know what I'm looking for?

  • Can I find enough information on the subject, and are the issues of real interest?

  • Do I really care about finding the answers to my question?

When the answers to these questions are positive, you are ready to research in more depth and prepare your working list of research resources.

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