VII. Researched Writing

7.2 Developing a Research Question

Emilie Zickel and Terri Pantuso

I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don’t have any resolutions for, and when I’m finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I don’t write out of what I know. It’s what I don’t know that stimulates me. I merely know enough to get started. —Toni Morrison[1]

Think of a research paper as an opportunity to deepen (or create) knowledge about a topic that matters to you. Just as Toni Morrison states that she is stimulated by what she doesn’t yet know, a research paper assignment can be interesting and meaningful if it allows you to explore what you don’t know.

Research, at its best, is an act of knowledge creation, not just an extended book report. This knowledge creation is the essence of any great educational experience. Instead of just listening to lectures, you get to design the learning project that will ultimately result in you experiencing, and then expressing, your own intellectual growth. You get to read what you choose, thereby becoming an expert on your topic.

That sounds, perhaps, like a lofty goal. But by spending some quality time brainstorming, reading, thinking or otherwise tuning into what matters to you, you can end up with a workable research topic that will lead you on an enjoyable research journey.

The best research topics are meaningful to you; therefore, you should:

  • Choose a topic that you want to understand better;
  • Choose a topic that you want to read about and devote time to;
  • Choose a topic that is perhaps a bit out of your comfort zone;
  • Choose a topic that allows you to understand others’ opinions and how those opinions are shaped;
  • Choose something that is relevant to you, personally or professionally;
  • Do not choose a topic because you think it will be “easy” – those can end up being quite challenging.

Brainstorming Ideas for a Research Topic

There are many ways to come up with a good topic. The best thing to do is to give yourself time to think about what you really want to commit days and weeks to reading, thinking, researching, more reading, writing, more researching, reading and writing on.

It can be difficult to come up with a topic from scratch, so consider looking at some information sources that can give you some ideas. Check out your favorite news sources or take a look at a library databases like CQ Researcher or Point of Review Reference Center.

As you browse through databases or news sources, ask yourself some of the following questions: Which question(s) below interest you? Which question(s) below spark a desire to respond? A good topic is one that moves you to think, to do, to want to know more, to want to say more. Here are some questions you might use in your search for topics:

  1. What news stories do you often see, but want to know more about?
  2. What (socio-political) argument do you often have with others that you would love to work on strengthening?
  3. What are the key controversies or current debates in the field of work that you want to go into?
  4. What is a problem that you see at work that needs to be better publicized or understood?
  5. What is the biggest issue facing [specific group of people: by age, by race, by gender, by ethnicity, by nationality, by geography, by economic standing? choose a group]
  6. What area/landmark/piece of history in your home community are you interested in?
  7. What local problem do you want to better understand?
  8. Is there some element of the career that you would like to have one day that you want to better understand?
  9. What would you love to become an expert on?
  10. What are you passionate about?

From Topic to Research Question

Once you have decided on a research topic, an area for academic exploration that matters to you, it is time to start thinking about what you want to learn about that topic.

The goal of college-level research assignments is never going to be to simply “go find sources” on your topic. Instead, think of sources as helping you to answer a research question or a series of research questions about your topic. These should not be simple questions with simple answers, but rather complex questions about which there is no easy or obvious answer.

A compelling research question is one that may involve controversy, or may have a variety of answers, or may not have any single, clear answer. All of that is okay and even desirable. If the answer is an easy and obvious one, then there is little need for argument or research.

Make sure that your research question is clear, specific, researchable and limited (but not too limited). Most of all, make sure that you are curious about your own research question. If it does not matter to you, researching it will feel incredibly boring and tedious.

This section contains material from:

Zickel, Emilie. “Developing a Research Question.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Archival link:

  1. Toni Morrison, “Toni Morrison,” in Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate (Continuum Publish Company, 1983), 130.


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7.2 Developing a Research Question Copyright © 2023 by Emilie Zickel and Terri Pantuso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.