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Research: The Narrowing Process

July 9, 2014

Hey, all. Happy Wednesday, and welcome to the middle of your week…:)

As an academic writer, you can’t do good research without understanding the narrowing process and its purpose. You’ll also have a tough time with real narrowing unless you’re willing and able to engage in meaningful research. In other words, research and the narrowing process are joined at the hip. You need to understand the relationship between the two if you’re going to get anywhere as an academic writer.

The key thing you have to accept about the relationship between narrowing and research is this: in order to get to a proper thesis that will meet the basic criteria for good academic writing, you ALWAYS have to narrow to material that’s beyond the boundary of your own existing knowledge of the subject. That’s the point at which your need to do some real research kicks in with a vengeance. If you’re a first year student, the odds are that you’ll run up against the edge of your own subject knowledge pretty quickly. It’ll happen in all your courses. You won’t be able to find a credible thesis to write about without hitting the library first.

Informative value, remember…

I used to do this thing with my first-year English students in college. I’d start by reminding them that part of what they’d be tested on in their essay assignments would be their ability to write intelligently about theses that were narrow, arguable, clear and relevant, and to use and analyze supporting material that would be new to them.

Deer in the headlights, I’m telling you. Some of them would even drool in sheer terror.

Then I’d tell them that there was a simple way to learn to narrow. I’d make them go through a little exercise with me. I’d ask them to pick a subject out of the air — any subject, as long as it wasn’t fantasy. Invariably, someone would volunteer a subject in which he or she already had a bit of knowledge or interest. Then, I’d get the group to ask a series of simple and obvious questions about that subject: what, how, where, when, which, why, to whom, for whom. I’d coach them to provide single answers for each that they thought were simple and straightforward. From those answers, I’d get them to pick the one they thought the most interesting or promising. Then I’d have them ask the same set of questions about their selection. As long as they stayed within the original subject area, they couldn’t help it: the answers would be narrower. From the second round of questions, they’d again pick the most promising answer, and we’d do it again. And again. And again.

My usual advice to them was that sooner, rather than later, they’d reach the limit of what they knew. Then it was time for research to keep supplying fresh answers. Of course, with each question asked, the interest in both the general area and the more specific branch they’d chosen would intensify. Then, when they’d done some research and thought they were hot on the trail of an interesting idea or question that could form the basis of their arguable assersion, I let them know that they probably had only three or four more steps to go in order to get something narrow enough and clear enough to write about.

Try to imagine how much of a shock to the system this stuff would be if you’d come through school on a diet of unsupported generalizations, vague conclusions and minimal instruction in structure and research. Oh…wait. Depending on your age, you might not actually have to imagine it at all — and we haven’t even assumed a particular rhetorical approach that might have been assigned.

This whole business of narrowing is so important that we’re going to work through an example in my next post. In the meantime, think about things you’ve written or, worse still, actions you’ve taken in the past based only on what you knew “going in.” If you got a result that pleased you by operating that way, it was dumb luck. You can’t learn anything new, do anything differently (in any area of your life), or make any real progress of any kind without going beyond what you already know at the point at which you decide change is necessary. That means focus, narrowing and research…and narrowing…and research…and more narrowing….

See you next time.


by Steve. Find out more about Steve here.