Research Writing Process/Research Question

Research Writing Process

The research writing process mirrors the general movement of the writing process—prewriting, writing, revising—since any research essay is primarily “essay” first. This is a key concept to remember. Research adds support to your own analysis and insights that you offer in your thesis, topic sentences, and units of support. Research should not supplant or take over your own thoughts; it simply adds validity and credibility to your argument.

With this key concept in mind—that any research essay is an “essay” first and foremost—know that research writing adds some additional stages to the writing process, related to developing a research question and finding, evaluating, and working with sources.

The Research Writing Trap

Research writing should not start out with full, serious research into a broad topic. For example, if you know you want to write about rodent behavior for a behavioral biology class, you should not just start researching everything you can find about rodent behavior. Research such as this has does not have a specific focus. Since it’s human nature to want to use what you find, you very well may waste time figuring out how to coordinate a wide range of interesting factoids that may not be related to one another. If you start in this way, by researching a very broad topic, you risk doing a broad-based report without the essay characteristics of a thesis, topic sentences, and units of support that directly relate to and develop an assertion in your thesis. This method is ultimately a waste of valuable time. Don’t fall into this trap.


So, how might the research writing process unfold? One important difference between the writing and research writing processes is the addition of a specific pre-thesis step: developing a research question. A research question provides some focus so that you are not indiscriminately researching a broad topic. You may start by prewriting to develop a research question. Or you may start by reading overview sources to get a sense of the scope of a topic  and to help narrow that topic in order to develop a research question. No matter how you start the research writing process, you’ll move back and forth among prewriting, researching, and writing during the process. You’ll revisit, repeat, and/or reorder stages in the process as needed.

The research writing process includes the following stages:

  • develop a research question
  • complete preliminary research using overview sources to either help develop, hone, or answer your research question
  • complete fuller research
  • answer your research question by developing a thesis based on your own thoughts and research
  • develop topic sentences and units of support to validate the assertion in your own thesis
  • draft and revise your research essay
  • document your sources

Look at a visual representation of the Research Writing Process.

The two videos below clearly discuss research writing processes. Both comment on the importance of planning before you actually start to write a draft, a concept that this text discusses more fully in the page on Synthesizing Sources. And both offer some suggestions about the time needed to move through the research writing process (note that the first video is geared toward students pursuing a master’s degree, so the essay length and thus the timing may be a bit more than what you will experience).

Developing a Research Question – Initiating the Research Writing Process

Developing a good, solid research question is key to research writing. Sometimes a research question occurs naturally, but often it takes work; it can be one of the hardest parts of writing a strong research essay. Creating a research question doesn’t happen all at once. You may move back and forth between prewriting and preliminary research, skimming overview sources to get a sense of how you might narrow a topic, whether the topic is researchable, and what types of supporting sources might exist. Research question development is a gradual process that usually happens in stages: choosing a topic, narrowing a topic, and then progressively asking questions that create more of a focus, ending with a working research question.

Choosing a Topic

If you are able to choose your topic, find a topic that interests you. If your topic is assigned, try thinking about an aspect of that topic you find most interesting. You’ll spend a good amount of time working on this essay. Make sure that the topic engages your interest.

Keep in mind that your final topic and research question most likely will not occur to you simply by thinking about it. You’ll usually need to do preliminary research by skimming general overview sources such as websites, books, and/or encyclopedias. You’ll eventually move to more focused research; use any reading of overview sources to find one smaller, intriguing aspect of your topic. A usable, appropriately-narrowed topic and research question usually occurs as the result of skimming, reading, and thinking about what you’ve read.

Narrowing a Topic

This is just what the heading says—you eventually need a manageable topic, one that you can deal with in some depth in an essay. For example, a topic such as the history of the labor movement in the U.S. is too broad for a medium-length essay; you’d need to write a book. Once you have an idea for a topic, brainstorm ways of specifying that topic. For example, you might want to focus on labor initiatives in the 1940s, or you might want to compare and contrast two specific labor negotiation techniques. It’s useful to brainstorm and list multiple ways of narrowing a topic so that, even when you’re doing preliminary research in overview sources, you have some focus.

Moving from Topic to Research Question

No matter what your topic is, you’ll most likely narrow further to a research question by asking increasingly focused questions about your topic, and by evaluating the language in each question to determine if it can be more specific and thus more narrow. As you can see in the chart below, you can start with a topic, narrow the topic, and then ask increasingly focused questions to develop a viable research question.

Developing a Topic into a Research Question
Topic Focused Topic Initial Research Question Specified Research Question
    Adequate to answer, but not fully specific
More complex question; very specific
food in Vietnam usual Vietnamese diet What does Vietnamese food reflect about Vietnamese culture? How does Vietnamese cuisine reflect a history of colonialism?
obesity in the U.S. increase in obesity in the U.S. Why have obesity rates in the U.S. increased over the last 20 years? Is there a correlation between obesity rates and economic instability in the U.S. over the last 20 years?
religion in the Middle East role of religion in the Middle East How has religion influenced politics in the Middle East in the last 50 years? How has religion’s influence on government impacted the day-to-day lives of Qatari citizens?

The video below explains how to create a viable research question.

Issue-Based Research Question

Many research writing assignments will ask for your insights on an issue. An issue is “a debatable question that lends itself to an analytical response providing reasons why,” as opposed to a topic or question that lends itself to a purely descriptive response.

For example:

issue = Should the U.S. public school system require competence in a foreign language as one of the requirements for a high school diploma?

vs. topic = foreign language teaching

vs. question that lends itself to a descriptive response = What are the steps in foreign language acquisition at certain ages?

You may be able to answer your debatable issue question (in other words, you may be able to create a working thesis) before you search for evidence in library sources, or you may need to search for evidence first in order to refine and specify your research question, before you find research that answers the question. Either way is fine; you may use different approaches for different research situations.

Developing a Research Question in Action

Example #1

Suppose you want to write research essay on some aspect of World War II. The material written on World War II has filled whole libraries, so you obviously won’t be able to complete a research essay on all of WWII in just a few weeks. The first question to ask yourself, to create a topic, is: “What aspect of WWII am I interested in understanding better?”

  • Strategies?
  • Weapons?
  • Major characters?
  • Specific battles?

Let’s say you want to understand more about WWII weapons. You consult a couple of encyclopedia articles on WWII weapons and discover that the general categories of weapons at that time were tanks, artillery, and firearms. Each of these categories includes several dozen to several hundred specific weapons. Can you cover all of these in one essay? Yes, if you write a sentence on each one. But then you’re not really writing a research essay; you’re writing a list. You need to go deep, not wide. No one, including you, wants to read a paper that treats a great deal of material in a very superficial manner.

You continue to survey general information sources on WWII weapons. You read a little bit on each of the categories listed in the Second-Level Narrowing tab and decide that the one you are most interested in is artillery. OK, but what kind?

  • Surface-to-air missiles (SAMS)?
  • Machine guns?
  • Anti-aircraft guns (Flaks)?

As you continue to do preliminary research, you learn that air defense tactics and the various models of anti-aircraft guns were extremely critical in various battles, so you decide to focus on that. Yet look at the terminology: “critical in various battles.” You won’t be able to write a brief essay on the role of anti-aircraft guns in all battles of WWII. So the next logical step is to pursue more preliminary research (e.g., websites, encyclopedias) to determine some of the major battles of WWII where the use of anti-aircraft guns were critical. You remember hearing something about “the Blitz” of London, so you look that up and decide to focus on the role of anti-aircraft guns in defending London from German planes.

Here are some ideas for your research question:

  • How questions: How were anti-aircraft guns used in the defense of London through the Blitz?
  • Why questions: Why were anti-aircraft guns initially limited in their ability to defend London during the Blitz?
  • What questions: What were the initial and later strategies for deploying anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz of London?

As you continue to work, you might find yourself combining some of these into a single question. For example, “What changes were made in the technology and deployment of anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz that allowed them to be used more effectively as the Blitz wore on?”

Notice that the question above allows you to go deep with a single, limited topic and master some important information in one area of weapons and those weapons used in WWII. By the time you’re finished writing this essay, you’ll be a semi-expert on the Blitz of London and the use of anti-aircraft guns by the British during that period.

Example #2

Your areas of interest are racism in the U.S., technology in medicine and health care, and independent film-making. After doing some prewriting and preliminary research on each, you decide you want to learn more about racially motivated police violence. You develop the following working questions:

  • Are police officers likely to make judgments about citizens based on their race?
  • Have police forces instituted policies to avoid racism?
  • Who is most vulnerable to police violence?
  • Who is responsible for overseeing the police?

You realize that you need to narrow the focus to develop a more viable path of inquiry, eventually ending up with the research question:

  • Over the last 30 years, what populations are most likely to experience police violence in the U.S.?

You start to research in order to answer this narrow question. However, after completing more research, you discover that your answers are coming quite readily and consistently: young black men are significantly more vulnerable to become victims of police violence. You realize that you’re not really saying anything new, so you have to tweak your path of inquiry.

You circle back to do more freewriting and research to find sources that disagree with this conclusion or add new layers to the answers you’ve found. You eventually discover that there are a handful of police organizations that have made genuine efforts to confront racism in their practices. These groups are working actively against racial violence. You reorient your research question as follows:

  • Have anti-racist police trainings and strategies been effective in reducing individual or institutional racism over the last 30 years?

The following video offers a summary of how to develop a research question, and offers some additional research question characteristics as well as leading into the next step: how to work with a research question.