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Research and Citation

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Writing Questions

How to Write a Research(able) Question

1. Choose an interesting general topic. Most professional researchers focus on topics they are genuinely interested in studying, topics about which they have a lot of curiosity. Writers should choose a broad topic about which they genuinely would like to know more. 
I want to know about ___________________________________________...
Identify the motivation for your interest: 
...because ___________________________________________________…
This motivation may help you narrow or broaden your topic as necessary.
Identify what you already know on this topic. You will need to go beyond this knowledge and confirming this knowledge. 

2. Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do a few quick searches in school databases and official websites on your topic to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow your focus. What issues are scholars and researchers discussing, when it comes to your topic? How have those debates changed over time? What questions occur to you as you read these articles?

3. Consider your audience. You are not writing for yourself, but for others. Always keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question. For most papers, your audience will be your teachers and perhaps peer-reviewers. Why would that particular audience be interested in the question you are developing? What kinds of questions will they need to have answered?
Take your research results beyond yourself now. What do you want to accomplish with what you will learn?
I want to know about _____________________ because _____________________ 
in order to __________________________________________________________.

4. Start asking subquestions. What do you need to know in order to answer the overarching research question effectively? 
Start asking yourself the basic factual type questions: What? When? Who is involved? 
Next, move to analytical type questions: open-ended “What is the significance of?,” “How,” and “Why” questions about your general topic. These questions are the heart of your research.

5. Evaluate your overarching research question and subquestions. After you’ve put a question or even a couple of questions down on paper, evaluate these questions to determine whether they would be effective research questions or whether they need more revising and refining.

  • Is your research question clear? With so much research available on any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in order to be effective in helping the writer direct his or her research. Show your question to a friend or family member. Can they understand the question without you explaining it? If not, revise.
  • Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available in the assignment.
  • Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts.  They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer. They often begin with “How” or “Why.”

6. Begin your research. After you’ve come up with a question, think about the possible paths your research could take. What sources would be most authoritative on this topic? What keywords and search strategies will ensure that you find a variety of perspectives and responses to your question? What counter-arguments appear that must be considered and addressed? This is the ideal time to consult a librarian one-on-one.
Refine your questions based on what you learn: Which questions are now answered? Which questions arise now that you know more? Do you need to revise your overarching research question based on what you learned?


Adapted from George Mason University’s Writing Center and The Craft of Research by Booth, et al.