I hope you had fun generating ideas with your mind maps last month and beginning some preliminary research. By now you must have tons of ideas about where this whole process could take you. However, it’s time to start clearing up a tiny bit of the messy stuff and begin to formulate your question.
As you began to map out ideas and read a bit in your research area, you probably noticed that there were certain ideas that appealed to you more than others. This is the point in the process in which you get to narrow your focus and really look into those interesting ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to scrap everything else, just that you are now going to choose a lens through which to view your topic. Some of those other ideas from your map could prove useful as background or supplementary info so hang onto those ideas!
One of the biggest mistakes beginning researchers make is assuming that they shouldn’t write about something because they don’t know a lot about it. This is part of the “write what you know” mantra which is good in its way but certainly not absolute. Many, many authors do the opposite and instead educate themselves about an idea through researching and writing about it and it is, in my opinion, the most fun way. Why? Because when you find yourself consumed with a mystery or a burning question, you’ll stop at nothing to find answers. Also, no matter how you approach this process of writing a book or a paper, you ultimately need a question around which to frame your writing. If your book or paper is simply a recitation of facts, it won’t have any value whatsoever. Your writing needs a point, a purpose, that is clear to the reader.
For instance, you might decide to write a book about Napoleon and his wife Josephine. Perhaps you had “Napoleon” at the center of your mind map and a little spoke with “Josephine” on it and it caught your imagination. Great. You have an idea. Except, so what? If all you do is write a linear narrative about their relationship, you’ve given us nothing. Why do you want to write it? What is it about the relationship between the two that compels you to write? What question do you want to answer for yourself and for readers? Perhaps when you really start to think, and when you revisit your mind map you find that what fascinates you is how this all-powerful man virtually enslaved himself to this woman who was rather scandalous and politically dangerous. Awesome. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now you need to turn this idea into the question you actually want to answer which might be something like, “How was this woman with a scandalous political past and who was rumored to have had many lovers during her relationship to Napoleon, able to bring the most powerful man in the world to his knees?” You might not have any idea. You might have only this question and that’s okay. Your job now is to do your research with this question in mind. Keep in mind that your question may change throughout the research process as you uncover new resources and avenues of inquiry but that’s okay too. Or, you may encounter “sub questions” that you need to answer on the way to answering your primary question. If this is the case, go with it! Just remember that you need to keep your primary question as the focus and let the sub questions serve as fodder for the primary question.
Feel free to play with your question(s) as you move through the process. It may help you to write down your question and have it in front of you whenever you’re doing research or even to work it into the title of your book or paper in some way so that you are always doing your work with your question in mind.
Look at that! You have a focus!
TASK: Use these next couple of weeks to really narrow your focus and settle on a question and maybe a couple of sub questions that feed into the main question. Write these down and tack them above your desk or put them on a sticky note on your computer. Begin tracking down resources that might help you answer your burning question.
In our next post we’ll focus on beginning the research in earnest. I’ll talk about strategies, tips for locating resources and getting the most out of them, and how to organize your research.