English 102

Developing a Research Question

Your research question is the key to success in doing your research and writing your research paper. It is how you know what you are looking for. It focuses your research. It is the first step in forming a thesis. A good research question is the foundation of all future work on the paper.

There is a very good chance that your research question will change as you go forward. That’s not a bad thing; in fact, it’s often a sign that you are making progress in focusing and developing your ideas. Often when people get stuck in their research and think they need a whole new topic, really they just need a new or revised research question.

Start by thinking about the overall topic and the discussion in class (if any) about this question. Pick a specific topic related to the overall topic that you would like to spend several weeks researching and writing about.

Tip: Good questions are based on narrow topics. For example, “homelessness in Seattle” is a more successful topic than “poverty.” Think about it: “poverty” could mean anything and everything from a village in the rain forest of Ecuador to welfare policies in Denmark. So don’t stop with the answer to the overall question (the “biggest problem”). Instead, use that as a starting point to develop a more focused, narrow topic, and then develop your question from there.

Sometimes people worry that there won’t be enough sources on their topic if they narrow it down. The opposite is almost always true: Usually there are more sources on one specific aspect of the problem. Again, think about it: An expert on homelessness in Seattle won’t necessarily know much about food shortages in Tanzania (another aspect of the overall topic “poverty”). But they will have tons of information on homelessness (policies, studies, surveys, interviews, life stories, proposed solutions, etc.) and about Seattle (population, demographics, geography, history, laws, numbers of homeless, housing and rental markets, etc.). Narrowing your topic is like turning a microscope on a drop of water: Millions of details you cannot see with the naked eye suddenly come into focus.

Next, brainstorm 3 – 4 questions you’d like answered about your topic. Pick one you think might be discussable for 8 – 10 pages. Here are a few pointers about selecting a good question:

Read the UW’s Research 101 tutorial on Research Topics. In the second page of the tutorial, Basic Pointers, pay special attention to Research Type 3 (extracting new meaning or developing unique solutions from research), as this is the type of paper you will be writing for this class.

The answer to your research question will form the thesis of your final research paper. Read What is a Thesis. This will give you an idea of what you are aiming for.