Good research and analysis begins with crafting a strong research question. A well-focused research question will hone in on your audience, be relevant and timely, and demonstrate that you are a subject matter expert.

Whether you’re writing for a big-time academic publication or working in the smaller scale, keep these tips in mind for your next research assignment.

Focus your research question

According to authors Campbell, Schultz Huxman, and Burkholder in their book The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 5th Edition, it’s a good idea to consider your audience and current affairs as you begin to focus your research questions.

Three questions will help you do this:

1. What parts of this topic are most significant and interesting for this audience?
2. What parts of this topic are most important, serious, or have the broadest implications?
3. What aspect of the topic is most easily explained, or what aspect can be discussed most fully in the time or space allotted? (53)

Consider your audience

Who will be reviewing your work, primarily? Is it faculty at your school? Is it academics around the globe or those in a small niche of your field? Will it be people who share your view or those who oppose?

Consider what aspects of the topic will be new to them and forget about wasting space on points they already know. Focus your research questions on the parts of the topic that touch your audience’s lives or circumstances.

Know the context

The text goes on to explain that the second question aims to focus on the audience’s circumstances:

“On the basis of your research, you may decide that the problems of nuclear energy are the most pressing despite their remoteness from the immediate concerns of the audience. If so, you need to think carefully about how you can make this facet of the energy question significant for the audience.” (53)

Be the expert

Question three “is designed to call the rhetor’s attention to clarity and intelligibility.” (54) To successfully demonstrate that you are a subject matter expert on a topic, it’s important to consider all aspects of the equation. However, you’ll need to select a narrow enough research question to solve succinctly in the space available to you.

Authors Campbell, Schultz Huxman, and Burkholder explain, “For example, the problems of energy are many, and each is complex. The problems of nuclear power alone cannot be discussed in five minutes or in 1,500 words. In order to make sense of the subject, you might decide to limit your discussion entirely to the problem of what to do with existing outdated nuclear plants.” (54)

Reference: Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs; Susan Schultz Huxman; Thomas A. Burkholder. The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 5th Edition. 2015: Cengage Learning

In what areas do you consider yourself a subject matter expert, and how would you demonstrate this to an academic audience? Share your thoughts below.