How to Think
How do you move from your research notes to answering your research question? This can be the most thinking-intensive part of writing an paper. It requires you to figure out:
How Does It All Fit Together?
Figuring out how it all fits together is a little like playing with Legos. You gather the blocks, take them apart, play around with them, and eventually create something new.
From a Topic to a Problem
Once you narrow your topic, you need to think about related problems. The goal of research is to answer questions that help to solve one of these larger problems. Using bicycle lanes in urban areas as our topic, we can start to generate some potential problems:
In academia, we call the process of taking things apart analysis and the process of putting them back together synthesis. These processes are circular and involve asking a lot of questions. One question leads to another until the pieces come together.
How do you know what questions to ask? It’s not always obvious. You keep trying until you uncover something worth writing about. Below are some samples of good questions.
When you want to understand something, ask questions like these to delve deeper:
Understanding something often requires connecting it to other ideas from academic sources, fieldwork, and personal observation. Here are some strategies to make connections.
- how does one idea touch another? (in time, in space, in meaning)
- do the data relate to theories you’ve studied?
- how do ideas compare? (look for comparative words like fewer, better, stronger…)
- how is this idea similar to other texts? how is it different?
- can you see a cause-and-effect pattern? (look for words like because, since, as a result)
- is some information consistently left out or missing?
- what else does this remind you of?
- where do two very different ideas come together? what happens when they do?
- what’s not quite right? what doesn’t come out as expected?
Playing with these types of questions, plus some creative thought of your own, should help you figure out what you will write about.