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Totally Write!

Research: The Narrowing Process, Encore

July 14, 2014

Hey hey. I hope your week is off to a good start, despite the “iffy” weather. All is normal in my corner of the world, or at least, as normal as it ever gets.

We’ve been looking at research in academic writing, and in particular, we were having a look at the importance of narrowing the thesis in a research essay. The narrowing process, if you aren’t used to it, can seem horrendous, especially as there’s that apparent “Catch-22″ situation: you can’t narrow to a final thesis without research, but it’s hard to know what to research if you don’t have a thesis that you’re targeting. 

Frustrated ResearcherAs I pointed out last time, the way around the problem is simple: the narrowing process and the research process are tied together, with one feeding the other. I promised we’d look at an example, so that’s the agenda for today’s post. 

A cautionary note: because this post is like a very abbreviated one-sided conversation, I’ve got to keep the example simple. In practice, the complexity of your research, the components of your ultimate thesis, and the length and organization of the assignment itself will depend on the nature and level of the assignment. All I’m concerned with today are the basic principles and their application to a simple task. With that in mind, off we go.

The Ground Rules

Your first year English instructor is concerned that you become familiar with comparison and contrast as a rhetorical approach in academic essays. He or she also wants you to get used to the idea of selecting material that’s academically appropriate for a college assignment. That means you’re not allowed to compare the two best methods bathing dragons, or other similar nonsense. You have to choose material that will be seen as appropriate fuel for discussion in an academic undergraduate course.

Research - The Walking LaptopNow, that sounds like it’s pretty limiting, but it really isn’t. If you’ve been given free choice of material subject to the criterion of “academic appropriateness,” you can consider topics from any post-secondary educational field. Depending on where you’re going to school, that might include areas as diverse as aircraft design, power mechanics, music, theatre, electrical engineering, history, literature, nursing, paleontology…you get the idea.

There’s a slight catch, of course. Just because you’ve got a wide range of subject areas from which to select, that doesn’t mean they’re all equally good or equally free from pitfalls. You’ll learn quickly enough from experience how to decide which subject areas or topics are more trouble than they’re worth, and which will make disproportionate demands on your time and energy.

Just two warnings: first, it’s generally useful to stay away from topic areas that are among your hottest “pet causes.” You’re less likely to be objective about them, and more likely to be emotional and to ignore research findings that don’t fit with your preconceptions. You’re taking an English composition class — remember what you’re being tested on and don’t get bogged down in personal stuff. Second, and more specifically, do NOT write about your personal philosophy of life, your personal belief system, your religion or your political affiliations. That stuff is rarely appropriate, save sometimes when you’re specifically asked for it in courses on philosophy, ethics, theology, political science, etc. It really does create problems with respect to the criteria by which your English composition will be judged. It creates far more work and “emotional investment” than you need at this stage of the game.

Your Subject Area

the amateur hippie photographerIn looking for something to write about, you remember that you’ve been thinking for a while about learning some photography skills, as you’d like to try your hand at a little amateur blogging or photojournalism one day. You’re also mildly concerned about ecology and the environment, and have been hiking in the local area for exercise. There’s some great scenery in your area, and you were thinking about buying a camera you could lug around with you. Maybe you could write something about choosing a camera. But is this an appropriate area?

You discuss it with your prof, who points out that your school offers journalism and photography programs — it’s definitely an appropriate area, as long as you narrow it effectively. The prof also points out that this is a basic paper, and whatever research you do isn’t supposed to take hundreds of hours in the library, or weeks poring over obscure internet databases and sources. You’re supposed to get a basic feel for going beyond the edge of your own existing knowledge.

Hmm. You ask for some further guidelines. Your prof just smiles and says, “Think about your potential audience. Then identify some needs they might have. Visit stores, look at journals, go online, talk with salespeople and experts — all of that qualifies as research that you can cite. Away you go.”

The Narrowing

Hmmm again. The first thing your prof mentioned was your potential audience. You remember thinking initially that you didn’t much care who was going to read your paper — after all, it’s just an assignment. Then you remember the whole business about what you’re being tested on. You remember that part of the test is your ability to say interesting, specific and informative things to an audience with a presumed interest in what you’ve got to offer. Clearly, that means you can’t write just for the prof. Nor can you write for everybody in the world who might one day decide to pick up a camera and wander off with it. You remember those questions you’re supposed to ask: what, how, where, when, why, to whom, for whom, under what conditions or circumstances.

You begin thinking more seriously about your audience, and you realize that it might be a good idea to make a few notes about audience characteristics and needs. You start with the obvious — maybe you can target people like yourself.

    • university or college students
    • like hiking for exercise
    • interested in having a camera for taking nature shots while hiking
    • might be targeting a photojournalism program, so might want something fairly decent in a camera
    • interested in blogging

This seems to you like a good list of characteristics. You realize you don’t yet know anything about the cameras that might meed the needs of this audience, so it’s time to do some digging. You’ve hit the edge of your subject knowledge a lot sooner than you’d anticipated. So, you go first to the internet with some general search terms about “cameras for hikers” and such. You realize instantly that there are areas of audience concern you hadn’t even recognized. Some of them are pretty obvious, like price, availability, durability and weight. There are going to be technical concerns as well, but you don’t understand enough about photography yet to get a handle on all of them. You didn’t even identify the pool of available cameras as “digital cameras,” but you now realize that not many photographers drag film-based cameras around with them any more.

You’re also instantly overwhelmed. You get tens of thousands of hits, and the sheer volume and range of the information terrify you. It will take you forever to find the answers you’ll need for all those “what, how, where” questions. You need some human help; you need to talk with somebody who knows more than you do if you’re going to get anywhere. In panic mode, you head for the biggest local photography/technology store you can find, clutching your audience characteristics notes.

At your local store, you’re helped by a salesperson standing in front of a wall on which dozens of cameras are displayed. You realize you’re going to have to approach this as a member of your own target audience if you’re going to get any useful information. So, you explain that you’re a local college student who’s thinking about getting into blogging and photography, and that you’re also into hiking. You’re looking for a camera to take with you to begin amassing your own collection of nature shots for blogging/photojournalism purposes. Then you look at the salesperson expectantly, thinking that a perfect camera will be plopped in front of you.

Instead, you’re asked a bunch of questions:

    • Are you going to be hiking and shooting year-round, and in what sort of terrain?
    • What level of image resolution are you looking for?
    • Are you publishing primarily to print, or primarily to web?
    • How much expansion capability do you need?
    • Do you want to be able to override automated functions?
    • What type and size of viewfinder or screen do you prefer?
    • What zoom capability do you need?
    • What accessories are you likely to want?
    • What’s your budget?

You swallow hard. Then you explain you’re new to the whole photography thing. You don’t have answers; you’re not even sure what questions to ask, and can the salesperson help?

You bet. You go through the questions together, and the salesperson explains the reasons the answers are relevant. You immediately decide that you shouldn’t be shy about making a few notes, noting the date and time, etc.

You quickly learn that temperature and humidity changes can affect some cameras more than others, and dust is always a factor. Battery life is also a big deal, depending on the length of your hikes and the number of photos you’re likely to take. You learn that you can find plenty of consumer reviews online for specific cameras when it comes to such matters. You also learn that in terms of better images, higher resolution is generally better, and that it’s recently become possible to get very high levels of resolution from relatively cheap digital cameras. However, the images from some cameras seem to take better to being printed on paper than others, though you don’t yet understand why — something to do with color correction, or true rather than optimized resolution. You realize that basic cameras have limited functionality, and that while they have zoom capability built in, there’s really no provision for future expansion, different lenses and such — that’s for generally for more expensive cameras. You also discover that most smaller digital cameras have screens that display the image you’re going to shoot, rather than actual viewfinders like most old film-based cameras. You’re not really sure how happy you are about that.

You make notes; you ask questions. Then you come to the salesperson’s budget question, and you realize you have to answer for your audience — it’s not just about your own pocket book. You ask the salesperson what approximate price range is likely to have the most options available to your target audience, given that they’ll want the maximum functionality and longevity for money spent.

The salesperson tells you that the €300 – €400 price range is currently the “sweet spot” based on your needs. He or she goes away and comes back with half a dozen small digital cameras from different manufacturers.

By this time, you’re starting to get some idea of what’s going on with the whole question thing. It starting to seem obvious. You carefully list the makes and model numbers of the six cameras the salesperson has presented, and you ask if there are any brochures you can have that show features, specifications, etc. In fact, there are, and you tuck those away for later reference.

Then you ask a key question: “What would you say are the three or four most relevant features or criteria I should use if I’m going to pick one of these cameras, and why?” You note the answers carefully. Your next question is: “Given what I’ve told you so far about what I need in camera, which two of these six cameras would be my best bets, and why do you think so?” Again, you take careful notes on the responses you get.

Time to go home, materials in hand. Even though you don’t yet fully understand all the information you’ve gathered on your visit to the store, think for a moment about what you’ve gained by talking with an expert, instead of slogging through endless unfocused search results.

    • You’ve learned more about the relevant needs of your chosen target audience.
    • You’ve learned some key photographic/camera vocabulary.
    • You’ve had an introduction to some key concepts and digital camera functions.
    • You’ve gathered some product data that you can use as quotable source material, once you understand it better.
    • You’ve identified an appropriate price range, camera features and even a pool of suitable candidates for purchase.
    • You’ve identified the two best possibilities, and the three or four most important criteria by which you (or your audience) could make a choice relative to their needs.

This is all good — but don’t get too happy just yet. You’re not done, and you’re certainly not ready to start writing. In your role as the writer, you still haven’t formed an opinion of your own, one you can present in the form of an arguable assertion that will meet the standards for a good academic thesis.

So What’s Left?

The first thing you’ll do when you get home is organize the notes you’ve taken. You’ll make sure that the date, name and location of the store are recorded (and the salesperson’s name, if you thought to get it), as you’ll need those for some of your citations. You’re also going to be taking your two top camera choices and reading up on those specifically. You’ll start with the brochures you got at the store. From there, you’ll move to online reviews and magazines, using the camera makes and models as search terms, as well as some of the terminology you found in the brochures. When you find something relevant, you’ll copy it to a text file and save all the relevant author/title/site information for bibliographic purposes (hint: you could just save the entire web page to a folder for reference when you need it).

At this stage, you’ll also be focusing on the features you now know are the most relevant to the choice confronting your target audience. You’ll research those specific features, using the vocabulary and information you obtained at the store. The idea is to learn enough to form an opinion and make the kind of recommendation you’d be willing to take yourself. You’ll also go to a source like Google Imges to see if you can find sample images produced with each of the two cameras, just so you have real evidence of what you’re talking about.

In the process of working through this stage, you’ll begin to have a much clearer sense about whether your focus is narrow enough to start laying out and writing the paper. You might feel that it’s okay, or you might decide that there’s more to be done. For example, you might actually discover that one of the three or four key features the salesperson mentioned has to do with automatic light metering. If your two top camera choices use two different metering systems, both of which are “state of the art,” there might be a lot to say about the similarities, differences and operations of the two systems. You could, in theory, narrow to just that one feature and do a paper based on three or four areas of similarity or difference between the two metering systems the manufacturers selected. Obviously, for that to work, you have to do more research and reading. You need to learn more, and you need to have enough material to talk about with some degree of understanding. Further narrowing ALWAYS requires you to develop more content expertiseso that you can write competently about your subject. You’d also be assuming a more informed audience with more specific photographic needs, and they’ll expect more expertise from you.

When you feel you’ve completed this stage, you should be ready to form an opinion as to the two cameras that are now at the heart of your paper. You’ll turn that opinion into an arguable assertion you can offer to your audience, with a promise to validate the assertion by discussion, example and evidence. You’ll present it with a nice bit of introductory material for context, and you’ll create a path that shows your prof you what comparison/contrast is all about.


footsteps to research


Next time, I’m going to show you how to write the introductory paragraph, together with a solid thesis and path statement, for your comparison paper about the camera choice. Remember: in terms of research, the process you follow each time, with each assignment, remains the same in terms of basic principles. Begin by identifying some audience characteristics and learning some vocabulary. go talk with someone who knows more about your subject than you do. Learn to think more broadly about the nature of “research materials,” and include expert advice, commercial publications and brochures (where relevant), online magazines, consumer reviews, academic journals, conventional texts, etc. Ask questions. Don’t give up, and don’t back away.

As you advance in school, the tools and methods you have available will become more sophisticated, as will your knowledge and your assignments. Don’t allow any of that to intimidate you: the underlying principles remain the same.

In a future post, I’ll share some great online academic information sources with you, and we’ll be talking about citation methods and systems as well.

Okay, this was a big one. I need a break — see you next time. 

by Steve. Find out more about Steve here.