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Preparing to Write

Why is a research question essential to the research process?

Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process.  The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the generic paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.


A research question is...

...the question around which you center your research.  It should be:

  • clear:  it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
  • focused:  it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
  • concise:  it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
  • complex:  it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
  • arguable:  its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.

To give you an idea of what you should be working toward, here are some examples:


General Idea:  Julius Caesar

Research Question:  What did Julius Caesar hope to accomplish by crossing the Rubicon?


General Idea:  Byzantium

Research Question:  What military strategies did the Byzantine Empire use that were so effective, yet convoluted, that even today the word Byzantine means intricate and complicated? 


General Idea:  Teen body image

Research Question:  What does research show is the most important aspect of teen body image and why?


General Idea:  Abortion

Research Question:  How has the US Government policy on abortion changed in the last fifty years?

Example for narrowing down a topic

Consider this generic topic:  Prohibition

It has no focus and is so broad you could write a thousand different papers.  Narrow it down to something specific:

Growth of Organized Crime

            Al Capone

                        Capone’s corruption of politics

                                    What was Al Capone’s effect on the 1927 Chicago mayoral race?

Now there is something specific to research and write.


You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious and/or passionate about.  Your professor may provide a list of potential topics.  Even if some are written in the form of a question, they are not well developed research questions.  That is your job.  You should examine your potential topic to determine what direction you want to go. 

You have to be specific to meet the goal.  Be sure you can develop good keywords for searches from the question.  Creating an outline is always helpful so look for a main topic that can be broken down into three to five important subtopics.  Those will provide additional keywords.

There are many good pages to find a topic.  Golemon Library offers a variety of databases as well as links to internet sites that offer scholarly information.  It sometimes helps to find a source you want to use and develop your topic from there.  For example, you could select almost anything from the Fordham Sourcebooks site.  You could also enter something that interests you in a general search, then read a little of the overview information to discover a specific aspect that you would like to write about.  Another idea is to find an image that appeals to you and work your paper around it.  

Do not be afraid to change your research question.  Until you actually submit your paper, everything is changeable.  Often research leads to more interesting topics.  More often, you discover you were not narrow enough.  Occasionally students even find their question was too narrow.  There are all sorts of reason to adapt your question to new information.


The Difference between a Research Question and a Thesis Statement

Many of us have been taught that in order to start a research paper we need a thesis statement.  That is only partially true.  Simply stated, a thesis statement is what your paper intends to prove or show.  A research question is what you need to learn in order to come up with a good thesis statement.  Coming up with the thesis statement first is not necessarily a good way to start your research.

Instead of starting with a thesis statement, it’s better to start with a question, and there are a couple of reasons for that. The first reason is that starting with a thesis statement presupposes that you already know enough about your topic to have not only a well-informed opinion, but the most up-to-date and expert opinion possible on the matter.  The vast majority of us don’t have that kind of knowledge about academic subjects, so research is required.

The second reason is that starting with a thesis statement builds your own biases into your search and limits your findings only to the ones you expected to find in the first place, which keeps you from learning important new things. Let’s say you want to write a paper about binge drinking and college students. If you start with the thesis statement, “Binge drinking among college students is caused by peer pressure and rebellion,” and search for those terms, one of three things will happen:

1) You will find all the information you need to know because peer pressure and rebellion are the only two reasons that college students binge drink

2) You will find no information because experts all agree that binge drinking is caused by other factors.

These first two scenarios are not very likely, but the third one, which is just as bad for your research, is:

3) You will find some of the information you need, but not all of it, because your query does not allow for results that show other important reasons that students binge drink.

On the other hand, if you start from the point of asking, “What are the reasons that college students binge drink?” you will find ALL of the reasons that experts think college students binge drink, not just the ones that agree with you. This approach exposes you to a fuller range of ideas about the topic than you started with and that knowledge can only make your paper or project better.

After you have completed your research and read the articles you retrieved, in order to write a thesis statement, all you have to do is answer your research question with the information that you have discovered. “What are the causes of binge drinking among college students?” may become "The causes of binge drinking among college students are socialization, pleasure, the affordability of alcohol, and the institutional promotion of drinking culture." Think of it this way: before you can take a definitive stand on an issue, you need to be well informed about it. That’s why you should start with a question, not with a statement.

The thesis is the start of the finished product, not the start of the process. 

Here is another example.

Why is a research question essential to the research process?

Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process.  The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the generic paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.

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