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July 2014
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Totally Write!

Research: Finding Your Needle

July 5, 2014

Happy weekend, y’all. Hope you’ve been having a great Saturday.

Today’s post picks up where we left off last time — with research. If research (for purposes of academic writing) involves finding needles in haystacks, then part of your job, in every assignment, is to find your own needle, understand its meaning and significance, and say something intelligent about it to your audience. 

This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. First, unless you’ve been told to make up a serious topic off the top of your head, you have an assignment in front of you. You already know from our previous discussions that you’ll have to read it carefully. You have to understand the terminology used; you have to put the issues or questions in the context of the course and the work you’ve been doing. You have to determine how much latitude the wording gives you to fiddle around with the content. If you’re not certain about some of these things, you need to meet with your professor, who may well give you greater latitude to manipulate your subject than you would have expected.

Then you have to prepare yourself mentally. One of the very first things to do is to figure out your answers to that all-important question: in this paper, what am I being tested on? The content-related answers will, in part, determine the direction for your research. You may not even be able to figure out everything you’re being tested on until you’ve actually done some of the research. That will make you uncomfortable, but it’s part of the process.

Next, you have to remind yourself (ALWAYS) that you’re not being tested on how skillfully you can write about the junk you already had in your head before you were handed the assignment. To meet the criterion of informative value, you’ve got to demonstrate to your professor that you can work intelligently and write clearly about material that’s new to you. However, neither the material nor your handling of it can be generalized or vague if you’re going to meet the other criteria by which your work will be graded. Above all — and this is one you should keep coming back to you — you’re going to have to keep your writing honest: keep checking to make sure you’re working on an essay (however long it may be), rather than a report. A report is primarily a fact-finding mission, even if it has analytical components and offers recommendations. An essay is an exploration of your thesis — an arguable assertion, the truth of which you will examine by analysis, the introduction of evidence, and explication. Keep your purpose clear. Dumping all the research material you find into your paper does NOT make it an essay.

When you begin considering what you might actually write about, you’re going to run into some roadblocks. Since you need material that’s new to you, you can’t formulate a thesis until you’ve done some research. On the other hand, if you don’t know what you’re going to write about, how can you possibly research it? It’s actually simple: the research, if done correctly, isn’t just research.

It’s the mechanism by which you’ll find and develop a thesis related to the assignment topic. As you learn more about an area, your ideas and questions will grow more specific and pointed; your research will follow suit. New research will disclose additional ideas and questions, some of which will be worthy of further digging. 

Yes, you say, but how will I know when I find something I can actually write about it, and what do I do then in terms of research? How will I know if my thesis is narrow enough? How will I handle all the material I find? Oh my God, where do I even start?

Those are normal questions. I have some answers for you, which I’ll present in sequence as we move along with this stuff.

For now, here’s what I want you to think about. When you begin your research, assume you don’t know all that much about your subject area, even if you really think you do. Start by doing some digging into the general principles governing the area of your assignment — go to texts, encyclopedias, and even your professors (who can, in fact, be cited as sources in your writing). Learn the vocabulary of the area. Use the internet to find out what’s current in the subject area as well, even if the most recent developments don’t appear to relate to your assignment topic. Keep notes, or make photocopies or printouts…and ALWAYS, ALWAYS be sure to record key bibliographic information right on the printouts or in your files. This includes stuff like authors, editors, edition numbers, publishers, dates and places of publication, page numbers, etc. If you decide to use some of these initial exploratory materials in your paper, you really don’t want to have to go back to hunt for the info you’ll need for bibliographic purposes.

At this stage of the game, you may feel off balance because there’s no structure to your research. Don’t worry about that. I’ll talk in my next post about how to create the structure you want from the research itself as you go along.

In the meantime, it’s Saturday night. Stop reading this junk, and go party.

Talk soon…;)


by Steve. Find out more about Steve here.