Research Writing as Conversation
Writing and reading are both social processes though they may take place asynchronously, or not at the same time. Texts are created to be read by others, and in creating those texts, writers should be aware of not only their personal assumptions, biases, and tastes, but also those of their readers. Writing, just like speaking, therefore, is an interactive process. It is a conversation, a meeting of minds, during which ideas are exchanged, debates and discussions take place and, consensus is reached. You may be familiar with the famous quote by the 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who compared writing to a conversation at a social event. In his 1974 book, The Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke writes,
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him, another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment of gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress (110-111).
This passage by Burke is extremely popular among writers because it captures the interactive nature of writing so precisely. Reading Burke’s words carefully, we will notice that the interaction between readers and writers is continuous. A writer always enters a conversation in progress. In order to participate in the discussion, just like in real life, you need to know what your the other people in the conversation have been talking about. So you listen (read). Once you feel you have the drift of the conversation, you say (write) something. Your text is read by others who respond to your ideas, stories, and arguments with their own. This interaction never ends!
This continuing conversation is especially true in research, in which -- while reading and participating in the larger dialog of a field -- a researcher finds what the latest focuses are and what needs to be researched next to move the field or topic research forward as a whole. Now, as an undergraduate student, you are not necessarily going to conduct cutting-edge primary research to move your field forward. However, practicing research provides you the opportunity to find out the latest in a field you might be interested, as well as learn more about a subject or the world generally. It's also possible for you to conduct some primary research -- research you collect yourself -- to learn the proper methods of doing so, and practicing getting yourself into the conversation.
To write well, it is important to listen carefully and understand the conversations that are going on around you. Writers who are able to listen to these conversations and pick up important topics, themes, and arguments are generally more effective at reaching and impressing their audiences. It is also important to treat research, writing, and every occasion for these activities as opportunities to participate in the on-going conversation of people interested in the same topics and questions that interest you.
Our knowledge about our world is shaped by the best and most up-to-date theories available to them. Sometimes these theories can be experimentally tested and proven, and sometimes, when obtaining such proof is impossible, they are based on consensus reached as a result of conversation and debate. Even the theories and knowledge that can be experimentally tested (for example in sciences) do not become accepted knowledge until most members of the scientific community accept them. Other members of this community will help them test their theories and hypotheses; give them feedback on their writing and experimental methods (peer review); and keep them searching for the best answers to their questions. As Burke says in his famous passage, the interaction between the members of intellectual communities never ends. No piece of writing, no argument, no theory or discover is ever final. Instead, they all are subject to discussion, questioning, and improvement. Case in point, Einstein's theories -- and the implications of his theories -- are still being researched and tested to this day.
A simple but useful example of this process is the evolution of humankind’s understanding of their planet Earth and its place in the universe. As you may know, in Medieval Europe, the prevailing theory was that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all other planets and the Sun rotated around it. This theory was the result of the Church’s teachings, and thinkers who disagreed with it were pronounced heretics and often burned. In 1543, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the Sun was at the center of the solar system and that all planets of the system rotate around the Sun. Later, Galileo experimentally proved Copernicus’ theory with the help of a telescope. Of course, the Earth did not begin to rotate around the Sun with this discovery; it always had. Yet, Kopernikus’ and Galileo’s theories of the universe went against the Catholic Church’s teachings at the time, which dominated the social discourse of Medieval Europe. The directors of the Inquisition did not engage in debate with the two scientists. Instead, Copernicus was executed for his views, and Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life for his views.
Although in the modern world, dissenting thinkers are unlikely to suffer such harsh punishment, the examples of Kopernikus and Galileo teach us two valuable lessons about the social nature of knowledge. First, Both Kopernikus and Galileo tried to improve on an existing theory of the universe that placed our planet at the center. They did not work from nothing; rather, they used beliefs that already existed in their society and tried to modify and disprove those beliefs. Time and later scientific research proved that they were right. Secondly, even after Galileo was able to prove the structure of the solar system experimentally, his theory did not become widely accepted until the majority of people in society accepted it. Therefore, new findings do not become accepted knowledge until they penetrate the fabric of social discourse and until enough people accept them as true.
Applying the Process Approach to Research Writing
The generic research paper assignment that most of us have been given in school often requires us to come up with a thesis, or position on the subject of our research before we begin researching. The crudest example of this approach goes something like this: a student writer is asked to "defend" a position he or she strongly believes in and to "support" that position with researched evidence. The assumption here is that the writer knows exactly what he she wants to say before the composing process begins. It is easy to see that, in this case, the purpose of research is to find the kinds of sources, proofs, and theories that confirm the writer’s existing opinion. Thus, the definition of the term "research" itself is changed and searching for answers is replaced with a quick fix of facts, statistics, and quotes.
Suppose, for example, that you have been assigned to write a researched argument about the death penalty. Suppose also that you are against the death penalty and that, in your paper, you will try to “prove” that killing someone as a means of administering justice is morally wrong. By the way, I think that arguing for or against the death penalty, abortion rights, and other similar controversial subject in a research project is very difficult because most people, including you, the writer, have set views on each of these subjects that cannot be changed. But, we will use the example of the death penalty argument anyway because it keeps popping up in traditional research papers.
Armed with the belief that death penalty is wrong, you go to the library or browse the Internet looking for “research” to support your thesis. Of course, because you already have your thesis, it is very tempting to look for and use only those sources that agree with you and to discard or overlook the others. If you are lucky, you find enough such sources and construct a paper that argues for the abolition of the death penalty. Ask yourself the following question, though: what have you found out or investigated during your research? Have you discovered new theories, opinions, or aspects of your subject? Did anything surprise you, intrigue you, or make you look further? If you answered "no" to these questions, you did not fulfill the purpose of true research, which is to explore, to discover, and to investigate.
The purpose of research is not to look for proofs that would fit the author’s pre-existing theories, but to learn about the subject of the investigation as much as possible and then form those theories, opinions, and arguments on the basis of this newly found knowledge and understanding. And what if there is no data that prove your theory? What if, after hours and days of searching, you realize that there is nothing out there that would allow you to make the claim that you wanted to make? Most likely, this will lead to frustration, a change of the paper’s topic, and having to start all over again. Not only will this inconvenience you by making you race against the clock to meat the deadline and do lots more busywork than necessary, but it will also be a waste of time because you will not learn anything new. Even if you manage to create a neat and efficient paper, it will be false research, simply jumping through hoops in order to fulfill another meaningless school assignment.
So, should you begin every research project as a disinterested individual without opinions, ideas, and beliefs? Of course, not! There is nothing wrong about having opinions, ideas, and beliefs about your subject before beginning the research process. Good researchers and writers are passionate about their work and want to share their passion with the world. Moreover, pre-existing knowledge can be a powerful research-starter. But what separates a true researcher from someone who simply looks for “proofs” for a pre-fabricated thesis is that a true researcher is willing to question those pre-existing beliefs and to take his or her understanding of the research topic well beyond what he or she knew at the outset. Speaking in terms of the process theory of writing, a good researcher and writer is willing to create new meaning, a new understanding of his or her subject through research and writing and based on the ideas and beliefs that he or she had entering the research project.
In fact, there are really two types of research papers: scientific-style research papers and literature review style research papers. We will focus on the literature review style of research paper, which is really like an extended essay, in this course. However, even a literature review depends more on the research that other people have done than does a regular essay and requires that you go into your topic with an open mind.
Reasons for Research
When you perform research, you are essentially trying to solve a mystery—you want to know how something works or why something happened. In other words, you want to answer a question that you (and other people) have about the world. This is one of the most basic reasons for performing research.
But the research process does not end when you have solved your mystery. Imagine what would happen if a detective collected enough evidence to solve a criminal case, but she never shared her solution with the authorities. Presenting what you have learned from research can be just as important as performing the research. Research results can be presented in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular—and effective—presentation forms is the research paper. A research paper presents an original thesis, or purpose statement, about a topic and develops that thesis with information gathered from a variety of sources.
If you are curious about the possibility of life on Mars, for example, you might choose to research the topic. What will you do, though, when your research is complete? You will need a way to put your thoughts together in a logical, coherent manner. You may want to use the facts you have learned to create a narrative or to support an argument. And you may want to show the results of your research to your friends, your teachers, or even the editors of magazines and journals. Writing a research paper is an ideal way to organize thoughts, craft narratives, or make arguments based on research, as well as share your newfound knowledge with the world.
Research Writing at Work
According to Greta Solomon of Forbes.com, "knowing how to write a good research paper is a valuable skill that will serve you well throughout your career. Whether you are developing a new product, studying the best way to perform a procedure, or learning about challenges and opportunities in your field of employment, you will use research techniques to guide your exploration. You may even need to create a written report of your findings. And because effective communication is essential to any company, employers seek to hire people who can write clearly and professionally. Research shows that those with better research and writing skills have a higher career trajectory and are more likely to succeed."
Writing at Work
Take a few minutes to think about each of the following careers. How might each of these professionals use researching and research writing skills on the job?
- Medical laboratory technician
- Small business owner
- Information technology professional
- Financial analyst
What Might You Research at Work?
Think about the job of your dreams. How might you use research writing skills to perform that job? Create a list of ways in which strong researching, organizing, writing, and critical thinking skills could help you succeed at your dream job. How might these skills help you obtain that job?
Contributors and Attributions
CC LICENSED CONTENT, SHARED PREVIOUSLY:
- Adapted from Writing for Success. Provided by: The Saylor Foundation. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
- Adapted from Methods of Discovery. Authored by: Pavel Zemliansky and updated by Joseph J. Selvaggio. Provided by: Three Rivers Digication. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0
This page most recently updated on June 6, 2020.