Is a research question really important?

Can’t you start researching a topic without creating a question? You could try that, but you would need to hunt for an idea among a maze of articles, books, and other research. The best strategy for finding sources is to create a research question before you go to the library or look online.

A good research question guides you in finding sources, taking notes, planning and writing the first draft of an academic paper.  It’s a roadmap to your final research paper.

A good research question guides you in finding sources, taking notes, planning and writing the first draft of an academic paper. It’s a roadmap to your final research paper. Click To Tweet

Yet, creating a research question is challenging.  How do you know if it’s in-depth without being too narrow that you can’t find any sources any on it?

You brainstorm research questions using different techniques. Then choose one that both fascinates you and has sources connected to the question.

Before Creating a Research Question

Spend a few hours getting an overview of your topic.  Understand the background information about your topic.

List some important facts about that topic and keep it in front of you.

Set aside 30-60 minutes for brainstorming research questions.

Start with one of these 6 techniques for creating a research question.

6 Ways to Create an Excellent Research Question


6 Ways to Create a Research Question

I teach my students 6 methods for finding a research topic. Some methods I used years ago, but others I learned from the book, The Craft of Research, 3rd Edition by, Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams.  This book is a great resource for anyone interested in learning about research writing.

Each technique is effective.  Try at least 2 and see which questions you like.


#1 Ask the Journalist’s Questions

If you don’t know where to begin, the Journalist’s Questions Technique is an excellent place to start.  Develop your research question by interrogating your topic.  Write down the topic and ask yourself the questions: Who? What When? Where? Why? and How?

List those questions, and ask follow-up questions about your topic.  Keep narrowing down questions until you find something that interests you.  Select that question and search to see if there are articles and sources that will help you answer the question.

If there aren’t relevant sources, select another question or try one of the other methods for creating a research question.


#2 Ask about the History of the Topic

Another good place to start is to think of questions related to the history of a topic. Every topic has a history (even if it’s a short one).  Consider when or how your subject began.  Questions you can ask are:

  • What has happened up until the present time?
  • Are there any significant events or moments related to your topic?
  • Who or what was important to this subject?
  • What is the origin of your topic?

List questions about the topic’s history and select what is most intriguing to you.


#3 Ask about the Topic’s Structure and Composition

This approach works well if you have a topic you can divide into pieces or is a topic with a process.

Consider these questions:

  • Can the topic be broken into different parts?
  • Does it have different categories?
  • Are there different types of the topic?
  • Is there a process for how it is developed?
  • Can you divide your topic into different steps?

For example, if your topic is fair-trade coffee, you could divide it up into fair-trade coffee from different countries.  Then write a research question based on fair-trade coffee in one of those countries.

You could also ask questions about the process of growing fair-trade coffee or purchasing it.


#4 Turn Positive Questions into Negative Questions

Think of common questions about your topic, and make these questions more interesting by changing them to negative questions.  Do this by listing positive questions.  After you have these questions reverse them, and see what negative questions you can create.

Here’s an example of this technique using fair-trade coffee.  A positive question is: What are the advantages of fair-trade coffee?  The negative question is:  What are the disadvantages of fair-trade coffee?

Brainstorm questions until you discover a negative question that interests you.


#5 Ask, “What if?” 

Consider what it would be like if your topic never existed.  Speculate about how your topic could be different.  Here’s an example of a “what if?” question you could ask about fair-trade coffee.

How would coffee farmers be affected if there wasn’t a fair-trade coffee arrangement?  You could examine how it would impact coffee farmers who are and who aren’t part of the fair-trade market.

Speculative questions help you see a topic through different viewpoints, so you can create original and unique questions.


#6 Ask Questions Based on Ideas in Other Sources

This approach involves spending time looking up sources on your topic.  Plan about 2-4 hours of searching for articles, books, and other research. Look at what other scholars researched and wrote.  Skim the sources you find.

Are there important themes, ideas or concepts that intrigue you?  List them, and brainstorm questions that relate to those ideas.

Tips for Creating a Research Question

Find a place where you can focus and brainstorm ideas.  Plan to spend at least 30 minutes developing questions. Try more than one approach to creating your research question.  You want to see things from different angles and have a variety of ideas you can choose from.  Try more than one approach to creating your research question. You want to see things from different angles and have a variety of ideas you can choose from. Click To Tweet

Also, you will spend a lot of time researching and writing about your topic, so select a question that ignites your curiosity.  The more intrigued you are, the more engaged you’ll be in writing a research paper.

Your research question is an important step in the process of writing an academic paper.  It will guide you in researching, note-taking, and writing a paper.   Learn all the steps to writing an excellent research paper in the post, “How to Write a Research Paper Professors Will Love.”

Do you want to make writing a research paper easier?  Download my free step-by-step guide, How to Write a Research Paper That Will Blow Your Professor’s Mind.   It helps you brainstorm, research, write and edit any academic paper you write.