Research Process Overview
Writing a research paper is often the most complex writing task you’ll engage in during your college experience. The process of locating sources, note-taking, drafting, and editing offers you the opportunity to delve into a specific question on a topic. The result can be deeply rewarding; when you finish a well-researched and well-crafted paper, you’ll feel as though you truly own your material and your assessment of the topic as an expert.
In some classes, your professor will assign a topic. In other classes, you may be asked to choose among selected topics. And, sometimes, your professor may leave the topic entirely up to you.
Whichever strategy your professor uses, you’ll need to know how to get started and how to ultimately create a polished piece of writing. For your paper to be successful, you need to think through the steps of the research process and make sure that you give yourself enough time for all the stages of research and writing that will be explained in detail in the pages that follow.
It’s important to remember that a good research and writing process is recursive. This means the steps are not always linear. For example, when you revise, you may realize you need to go back a few steps and add more research to your paper. Or, perhaps, as you edit, you realize you need to go back to the beginning, to the analysis stage, and reconsider your audience, as you think about the language choices you make. These steps are signs of a thoughtful research process.
Writing a research paper is not exceedingly difficult if one remains considerate of the process, plans carefully, and stays on task.
In the planning stages of the research process, you will want to complete the following steps:
- identify and narrow your topic to suit the size of your writing assignment
- identify research questions
- establish a working thesis statement
- identify the subdivisions of your paper
- locate and evaluate materials
- create an outline
- draft a topic proposal
- create an annotated list of works cited (19)
Narrowing Your Topic/Asking the Right Questions
It may seem easy to choose a topic for a research paper, but it can actually be difficult sometimes. In fact, determining a good, solid research question can be one of the hardest parts of writing a strong research paper.
Here are some guidelines to help you:
If you are able to choose your topic, find a subject that interests you. If your topic is assigned, try thinking about an aspect of that topic you find most interesting. You’ll be spending a great deal of time working on this paper. Make sure that it’s about something that you really are interested in learning to understand very well.
Keep in mind that your final topic and research question(s) won’t simply come to you by thinking about it. You need to get out there and start digging—through books, through encyclopedias, and through Internet sites. Pick a general topic that attracts you, and then roll up your sleeves and start reading. The narrowed topic and research question will only come to you as you wrestle with the material related to that topic.
Now, here’s one of the keys to doing a research paper for a college course. Don’t try to write the history of everything about your topic. Instead, find one small intriguing aspect of your topic and focus on that. A good research paper is not a big, general history or overview of everything that covers a great deal of information in a very superficial manner. It’s narrowed and focused and goes deep into a limited area of a topic.
For instance, a student would have a difficult time writing an insightful essay about the various ways that digital technologies have changed human communication in an essay that is capped in length at ten pages. That is a huge topic, of course, and it really can’t be explored in any meaningful fashion in such a short essay.
However, that same student might be able to craft a decent research argument on a component of that topic by focusing on one smaller, specific area of study—say, composing a paper on the ways that text messaging has changed the dynamics of interpersonal communication. (20)
Identifying Research Questions
Research is a process of uncovering information to learn something new. As Peter Morville, a leading consultant on information architecture and the World Wide Web, notes in the epigraph in the introduction to this learning module, the things that we learn shape both our personalities and our identities.
Early in your research process, you will want to explore your narrowed topic from the perspective of a series of questions. In the example from the previous section on how text messaging is altering interpersonal communication, the following questions might be appropriate:
- When did text messaging first surface as a widespread mode of communication?
- Where did text messaging first become popular?
- Why is text messaging such a popular form of staying in touch?
- How does text messaging influence other forms of human interaction?
- What are the long-term consequences for a culture that is shifting away from spoken conversation and toward text messaging as a dominant communication style?
These questions correspond with the types of inquiries that journalists make in their investigations of important news stories. As you begin the process of evaluating resources on your selected topic, keep your own research questions in mind and take notes as you read to help you refine the scope and direction of your essay.
It is important to note that the questions above relate only to how aspects of text messaging are changing interpersonal communication. They do not address (nor should they) another common controversy surrounding text messaging, which is the practice of texting and driving. These are two separate (though equally worthy) topics, but they are unrelated for the purposes of this particular example. Always make sure that your research questions are sufficiently focused to suit the needs of your narrowed topic!
As a writer begins to read and assess the materials in a particular subject area, these research questions often produce closely related inquiries that require elaboration in the paper. The questions above are what some researchers might refer to as “trailhead questions,” as they provide a writer access to the forest of information; those paths of inquiry, however, often branch off into new and interesting areas in the course of a research project.
Consider, for instance, the question listed above: How does text messaging influence other forms of human interaction? As students begin to read widely on the subject, they may encounter resources illustrating a variety of the common life experiences that are being changed by text messaging—including the celebration of birthdays. A series of related questions may arise:
- Is receiving a text message on a birthday the same as getting a card in the mail or taking a personal telephone call?
- How do automated text messages (often sent by companies or institutions) change the sincerity or authenticity of sending and receiving a birthday message?
These questions, which diverge just slightly from the trailhead, often yield some of the most insightful, specific subdivisions for a persuasive research paper. The questions above, for instance, would open up rhetorical avenues for the philosophical discussion of sincerity and authenticity in contemporary culture. (1)