Where do I Start?

Planning your search
Focusing your topic
Can you put that in the form of a question?

That all depends on what you're trying to do. Read your assignment carefully and think about what steps you might want to take next. You probably will need to explore a topic area before you narrow your focus and come up with a thesis. Be sure to take advantage of the superb Writing Center tutors (who can help you think through an assignment) and the reference librarians (who can point you toward the best information resources).

Planning Your Search

The word "research" means many different things. Research assignments might involve reporting on a topic, reviewing the state of research in a given area, reading and critically analyzing a text (in which case you may be directed to "discuss," "compare and contrast," or "react to" the text) or investigating and taking a stand on an issue. You might be asked to generate an original thesis or to conduct field research (interviews, surveys, experiments, or first-hand observations), using information you find in the library to support and frame your ideas. Read your assignment carefully and see if you can answer these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the project?
  • To what extent should I bring my own ideas to the project? Do I need to present an original theory, argue a point of view, or am I primarily sythesizing and organizing information in order to report on it?
  • How much evidence (or information) will I need to gather?
  • What kinds of evidence (or sources) am I expected to use?
  • What should the finished project look like?
If you aren't able to answer these questions, ask the teacher for clarification - but only after you've carefully read the assignment.

Doing research projects takes time. Look at your calendar and set realistic goals. Be sure you don't spend all your time finding sources - plan time into your schedule to read them and to write!

You might want to take a look at our Assignment Calculator to get some idea of how to schedule your work. Or create your own schedule based on the checklist found in The Everyday Writer.

Focusing your topic

You will have to spend some time mapping out the territory of a topic, sorting out what information is available and what different angles have been taken by others. This is often the most difficult part of the research process - and the most frustrating because you don't feel as if you're making much headway. Try these strategies to make the most of this part of the process:

  • Make a list of possible topics for your research. Use class discussions, texts, personal interests, conversations with friends, and discussions with your teacher for ideas. Start writing them down - you'd be surprised how much faster they come once you start writing.
  • Map out the topic by finding out what others have had to say about it. This is not the time for in-depth reading, but rather for a quick scan. Many students start with a Google search, but you can also browse the shelves where books on the topic are kept and see what controversies or issues have been receiving attention. Search a database or index of articles on your topic area and sort out the various approaches writers have taken. Look for overviews and surveys of the topic that put the various schools of thought or approaches in context. You may start out knowing virtually nothing about your topic, but after scanning the literature you should have several ideas worth following up.
  • Invent questions. Do two things you come across seem to offer interesting contrasts? Does one thing seem intriguingly connected to something else? Is there something about the topic that surprises you? Do you encounter anything that makes you wonder why? Do you run into something that makes you think, "no way! That can't be right." Chances are you've just uncovered a good research focus.
  • Draft a proposal for research. Sometimes a teacher will ask you for a formal written proposal. Even if it isn’t required, it can be a useful exercise. Write down what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and why it's important. You may well change your topic entirely by the time its finished, but writing down where you plan to take your research at this stage can help you clarify your thoughts and plan your next steps.

Can you put that in the form of a question?

For many, if not most, research assignments, you need to do more than understand a topic. You need to have some central idea about it, a thesis that is supported by evidence. One way to do this is to reformulate your topic as a question. Chances are your question will change as your understanding of the topic deepens, but it should help guide your search to have a specific research question in mind.

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