Good planning is essential to any assignment, and particularly to a research assignment. Spend some time thinking about what you are setting out to research rather than just diving right in, and your end product, both the research and the paper that tells others about the research, will have the effect you originally intended as you started out. Here's some essentials to consider:
Most Important - Decide to Start!
Yes, the most important step in a research project is to decide to start working on that project. A silly idea, yet totally essential to the process. You need to make up your mind to start your research project and then actually begin the process, or you'll find yourself spinning your wheels, making it much more likely you'll be scrambling to finish your assignment at 3 a.m., the night before it's due. And experience can tell you how those kinds of research projects turn out!
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Understand Your Assignment:
Make sure you understand what the assignment is asking you to do, and what the parameters are. Here's some questions to ask that will help you get on the right path:
- What exactly does the assignment ask you to do? Look for key terms such as analyze, classify, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, define, explain, persuade, survey, etc.? These key words ask you to cover your subject or to format information in a certain way. The field you're doing the research assignment in may also be important - analyze may mean something different in biology than it does in literature.
- What knowledge or information do you need? Do you already know something about the topic, or is it totally new to you? If that's the case, you may need to do some preliminary reading just to get a basic understanding of the topic before you start doing serious research. Once you get going with your research, what are the best sources? Do you need primary sources? Secondary sources? Interviews, journal articles, etc.? Keeping a research journal may prove to be very helpful. Keep track of your research and your ideas as you work through your project.
- How can you limit/broaden the topic or assignment to make it more interesting and manageable? Usually, you will find yourself needing to narrow the topic, but that's not always the case. In the case of researching and writing about global warming, you may need to narrow your topic to carbon emissions and their effect on global warming. However, a really narrow topic needs to be backed out to a more general one before you find articles in the article databases.
- What are the assignment's specific requirements? This is a simple point, but important nevertheless. You need to know how long the paper should be, what format to follow, how to organize your information, what kinds of sources, how many, what citation style to follow, and of course, the deadline. If this information isn't clear, ask your instructor.
- What's your purpose as a researcher/writer? (we'll cover this more in depth below).
- Who's your audience? (again, we'll cover this in a section below).
Decide on Your Purpose:
The great, ancient Roman Cicero said that good speech fulfilled one of three purposes: to delight, to teach, or to move. Today, we still speak or write to entertain, to inform/explain, and to persuade/convince. It's important to recognize the overriding purpose in any piece of writing and in any research assignment. For example, if your American History professor asked you to explain the intricately linked causes that led up to the Civil War, and you responded by writing a comparison of the political stances of both President Lincoln and the Confederate States' leader Jefferson Davis, you misunderstood the purpose of the assignment and turned in something that didn't meed the professor's expectations.
You should consider purpose in the following terms as you're planning your research project:
- Assignment: What's the primary purpose? To entertain your audience, to explain something to them, to persuade them to believe something about your topic, or something else?
- Your Instructor's Expectations: What was the instructor's purpose in giving this assignment? To make sure you've read certain material? To evaluate your thinking, or researching and writing skills? To make sure you evaluate certain materials critically?
- Your Own Goals: What's your purpose in doing this assignment? Are you trying to respond to the topic adequately to meet your instructor's expectations? Or are you trying to learn as much as possible about a topic you're interested in? Or are you trying to present your findings in a research study you conducted?
Consider Your Rhetorical Stance:
Take time to think about where you really stand on the topic you've chosen to research and write about. This is called your Rhetorical Stance. Ask yourself - what's your overall attitude toward the topic, what's interesting about it, and what preconceived notions do you have about the topic? Knowing this will help you decide if you need to gather more information on your topic or if you need to approach it more objectively.
Focus on Your Audience:
A mature writer/researcher has the ability to write/research for a variety of audiences; the language, style, and evidence should all be appropriate for the particular targeted audience. When planning, ask yourself - who will be reading what you've written - then think about the following:
- What group of people do you most want to reach? Exactly who do you want to reach? Your boss? People sympathetic to your point of view? Fellow researchers? People who disagree with you? Knowing this can help you select sources, choose your words, organize your ideas, and know just what to stress so you are reaching your specific audience.
- How much do you know about your intended audience? How are your audience members different from you? From one another? Find out as much about your audience as you can - think in terms of education, geographical location, age, sex, occupation, social class, ethnic and cultural heritage, politics, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, etc. Once again, the more you know about your audience, the better you will be able to tailor your piece of writing to fit them and the more likely your audience will respond the way you want them to.
- What assumptions do you make about your audience? What does your audience value? And here, we're not talking about morals or values. Are you writing for a business executive or fellow researcher with limited time who appreciates memos or reports that are short, sweet and to the point? Or are you writing to an audience (perhaps a colleague who's researching the same topic in the humanities) who values creativity and wants you to expand and explain as much detail as possible? Will you need to be original, conform to certain expectations, be honest, be adventurous be witty, or be serious?
- What's your audience's stance toward your topic? What is your audience likely to know about your topic? Will they bring preconceived views with them? Whether your audience is for or against you, or even undecided, knowing this can help you choose evidence that may help sway them over to your side.
- What's your relationship to the audience? Are you a peer writing to other peers? A subordinate writing to a supervisor? Or are you a citizen writing to the community? In each of these instances, you would write differently about the same topic.
- What's your attitude toward the audience? Are you friendly, hostile, or neutral? For example, if you are very hostile toward your audience, you'll have to carefully monitor your selection of sources and your writing to prevent that hostility from slipping through and turning off your audience.
- Finally, and most importantly, what response do you want from your audience? What was your main reason and purpose for writing the memo, essay, research report, etc.? What do you want your audience to do?