So You Have a Topic… Now What?: How to Turn a Preliminary Research Question into a Well-Researched Paper

Every semester, I assign students a research project. I think that conducting research on a topic of your choice is one of the best ways to engage with a topic– when I look at my own experiences as an undergrad, research projects were almost always where I discovered what about a subject I was really passionate about.

Last semester, one of my students in particular asked a very insightful question that few students actually realize they need to ask. And it is one that I often forget students need answered. So I want to talk to you all about it now. This post is going to be a long one, but trust me, it’s worth it.

She knew she wanted to write about something related to women’s issues. After some back and forth, she landed on how Instagram can be (and often is) leveraged by women entrepreneurs. It wasn’t necessarily as narrowed down as I’d like to see it in the end, but it was a very good start. 

Her response, the question that really got me thinking, basically boiled down to “So I have a topic… now what?”

And it occurred to me that a lot of students don’t really understand the best method for writing a research paper. It’s not actually a natural thing, though that is easy for many professors to forget, after years of research and writing. I think that a lot of students think the process looks like this:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Find the number of articles you need on the topic
  3. Read the articles
  4. Write the paper

This is a way to write a paper. But it’s definitely not the best way. By a long shot. What I’m going to describe below is the way tend to write my research papers. I’m not sure if it’s “best practices,” but it’s the best way I’ve found.

When you’re at that point, and you have a topic selected, the next step is to just start looking for articles, knowing that you’re not going to use every article you find. Go to reputable news outlets, scholarly databases, etc. and play with search terms. I’d probably start with different combinations of search terms– figure out what gets you more articles that look interesting. Maybe it’s “female entrepreneurs” and “Instagram” maybe you’ll find more stuff with “social media” and “women in business,” but are they closer to what you want or further from it? What’s bringing up stuff that seems recent and pertinent?

(I would strongly encourage you to try to use boolean search operators at this stage of the game as well. They can really help you find what you want and to separate the wheat from the chaffe.)

Find SEVERAL articles that interest you. Find some specific thing that REALLY interests you in a couple of them, and go back to searching for sources, using new search terms inspired by what’s catching your interest. The hope is that in this way, by iterating through it a few times, you’ll have several articles that will sort of come together to make a thesis or argument. Once you have that, you can start writing, weaving material from your sources together (PROPERLY SOURCED) in order to lay that argument out.

In other words, as opposed to the system above that many students assume will get them to a good research paper, I would recommend the below:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Find several articles on that topic
  3. Read those articles on the topic
  4. Identify a subtopic that really speaks to you in some way
  5. Search for articles more directly related to the subtopic, using boolean search operators
  6. Read those articles
  7. Look for commonalities or contrasts– how can these papers be woven together to make an argument?
  8. Write that argument out. Take bits of the different articles and use them to give authority to your argument 

I know this seems like a lot more, but I guarantee you that if you do it right, the paper should really feel like it’s writing itself. I’m not even exaggerating. It takes writing from being something difficult and painful to something that’s easy and kind of fun.

I believe, from my experience as an instructor, that students who don’t do the extra iteration of research really struggle finding something to say in their paper. If you do more work in the research and planning phases, the actual writing stage is just figuring out what order to put things in. 

Everyone’s different, and your milage may vary. But in twenty years of research and writing, this is the best method I’ve come up with. I hope you all find it helpful.

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