When tackling a large assignment such as a research paper, it is always a good idea to start with preminary questions and goals that guide your research. I call these "guiding questions." You might use another term.
The first question you will ask when chosing a research topic is "What do I wish to accomplish with this paper?" Are you setting out to prove or disprove something? Are you comparing and contrasting two things? Are you presenting two sides of an argument equally, or do you need to show the side that "wins"?
Effective guiding questions...
- ...must be open-ended. Avoid yes/no questions.
- ...should start out very general and gradually move toward more specific.
- ...cannot necessarily be answered with opinions. Consider that you are guiding your research at this point, not your final paper.
- ...should lead you to more questions. Good guiding questions will require some research and then lead to more questions.
- ...are more about idea organization than answers.
The biggest difficulty my students encounter in writing guiding questions and research goals is not knowing where to start. Other problems include asking questions that lead to dead ends and kill topics before they can be explored. You might also find that some of your questions have not been explored fully enough by experts and reading material is simply not available on your topic. Many students also struggle with writing such specific questions that there is only one answer.
Also, do not confuse "guiding questions" with a list of questions you have about your topic. If you know absolutely nothing about your topic, you may need to write a list of questions (terms to be defined, confusion about things you've seen/heard) that require answers, but often these questions will not actually guide your research. They are simply preliminary questions that you need to answer before you can even create guiding questions.