Katherine T., Nathaniel D
Chart a Clear Course:
Research and Planning
Making sure you have all the tools for your journey, this section details organizational tactics, research methods, and planning skills to help execute your journey more effectively. Preliminary and ethical research, audience analysis, and planning are pivotal maneuvers to reach your destination: a successful technical writing document.
You are about to enter to enter the land of technical writing. Before embarking on your journey, you should chart a clear course. How do you do this? You research and plan. To succeed in your endeavor, you should survey the area and plot a course that will ensure safe passage.
You cannot plan for your expedition without first conducting careful and thorough research. Just as you would never go to a foreign country without learning some basic information about it, you should never start any technical writing assignment without doing some research.
In a group setting, you must come up with effective means to brainstorm. Throwing out the first idea that comes to mind may interrupt other people’s flow of ideas or interrupt during their turn to speak. A written list of ideas that the group can look over as a whole after all members have had time to go home and consider their position might work better than a “camp fire” setting.
Mind mapping is a brainstorming technique that records free-flowing ideas and links them together in a logical map format to express the thoughts of the group. Mind mapping can be a real adventure when working in a group setting as it allows for input from all members.
Example of a Mind Map
Free writing is a technique used to tap into the unconscious to begin the writing process. Sometimes, environmental elements block great ideas. While free writing, you should record all of your thoughts with no regard to grammar or spelling. Following this stream of consciousness enables you to catch ideas that you would have passed over in other forms of brainstorming. Free writing does not have to be formal in manner. You can even use scrap paper if you like. You can keep your free writing in a journal or a notebook as well as loose-leaf paper until you finalize your project or until you decide what direction you want to take for your writings.
Determining Your Research Topic
Before you begin your journey, you will want to name the topic. Throughout your voyage, you will focus your initial broad topic into a defined research question. Keep ideas simple as to not close off any potential thoughts that may be helpful. You can use mind mapping, free writing, or any other technique to brainstorm what the name of your topic is going to be. The name of your topic should also correlate to the project type. For example, if you are writing a traveling guide or a novel about various expeditions or adventures, the name of the topic should not be Math for Dummies. Your topic should always be on par with your project.
When it comes time to research for the project, legitimate sources must be found. Finding research can often be daunting and can end tragically. Where to find legitimate sources can be a big problem for many students and inexperienced employees. Going to their respective websites can often times help as many times they have an engine where the user is able to input all the information they have and the engine accurately shows how to insert parenthetically and cite accordingly.
Adding an Indirect Question
Trekking along, the next step in effective research is to ask yourself an indirect question. In other words, you do not have the answer, but will guide you in planning your research for this question. This will help establish the general approach you will take with your research, and ultimately, your final project.
Motivating Your Topic
When planning a technical writing document, you must find a way to motivate your topic. Motivating your topic is defining why you want your audience to read about your topic and what will they learn.
If you do not motivate your topic your path may lead astray, progress could slow down quickly, and your project or technical document could quickly end before it even begins.
Focusing on a Research Question
Following the previous three steps, you are now ready to focus your research based on your research question. The question will include the topic name, your indirect question, and your motivation for completing the project. This process will help you develop the initial path along which you travel as you write your document. Chose your research question wisely, something too broad may include too much research and too much stress required. If your question is too narrow, you may not find the research needed to write the document or begin the project.
A proper research question is going to allow a large amount of research at your disposal as well as be easy enough to explore through without being an overload or creating a block in your path along the way.
Diving into Your Research
The best way to begin your research is to simply dive in. Spend time searching the internet. Go to the library. Ask around. There are so many places to find good sources. All you need to do is look.
Your Research Question 17 The World Wide Web
Research 17 has become a well-traveled route when digging for research. Search engines such as Google.com and Yahoo Search will provide advanced search features that allow you to track down specific information and lead you to postings that are more general. Well-executed research performed on the web could turn up limitless amounts of research. While the web is a great way to find research, you must also remember to be wary of sites that anyone can log on can add random often times fictional information. Also be wary of biased information, if a research question leads towards political aspects, researchers should be careful not to get all their information from one political party’s website as that lends itself to fictional information that does not help with getting to the truth or really examining a research problem.
Surfing the web is a great way find research, but you should not neglect the resources available to you at the library. If you do not know where to begin with your research, ask a reference librarian. University libraries and some public libraries, as well, have a librarian whose specific job is to help people with their research. They can track down sources you might not find on your own or, at least, point you in the right direction. Some legitimate places for you to look for research for a technical document would be online journal articles that are accredited and well-known publications. A public library or better yet a university library often has resources available that the average person is unable to locate by simply browsing the internet. At university libraries, a person is often able to request from the university that they acquire publications or journal articles at other universities in a particular network.
You should not assume that all of your research must take place in a library or at a computer. Often, you can accomplish more by going out into the field and getting your information first-hand.
Sometimes, the information can be gathered first hand. If you are writing about a place or a procedure, it might be a good idea to see it in person. Be sure to take notes during your observation. In addition, it may be beneficial to draw diagrams or illustrations that demonstrate concepts or procedures that you will be writing about.
If you are researching a process, you should go ask the people who are intimately acquainted with the procedure about it. They will be able to give you more insight than you can get from most textbooks. If the project is the flying of a fighter jet, then perhaps talking with a few pilots to explain how to operate the jet for a more personal experience. The table below details what you must do in order to accomplish a productive interview.
Steps to a Successful Interview
1. Choose carefully whom you will interview.
2. Arrange a meeting.
3. Do preliminary research to educate yourself on the subject.
4. Prepare questions that target the information that you wish to acquire.
5. Take notes during the interview in order to remember key information.
6. Thank your interviewee for contributing his or her time.
7. Reflect on the information you acquired.
8. Determine how to integrate this research into your writing.
(Axelrod and Cooper)
Tracking Your Sources
You need to find a strategy for keeping your sources organized. You can use old-fashioned methods if you prefer. Making detailed notes on index can work well. However, you can also take advantage of modern technology that saves you lots of time, especially when you are conducting internet research.
Evernote is an online service that enables you to take notes, save images, and view PDFs. You can access your Evernotes from any computer and never have to worry about losing your research due to computer failure. You can save just about anything, even printed or handwritten text in images.
The online research tool Zotero allows you to track and organize your sources. Located in your browser you can archive web pages and store documents, images, and links in your online library. The Drag and Drop feature enables you to easily pull items into your collection. You can then make your own notes alongside your sources. All of the major styles of citations are available to enable you to easily create bibliographies. Using this online tool allows you to access your research from multiple computers and even browse through your data on your mobile device. You can keep your research private, or share it with the world. Creating group libraries gives you the ability to collaborate on group research.
Evaluating Your Sources
Finding sources is easy. Ensuring that they are quality sources worthy of being used in your research is more difficult. You cannot follow a magic formula to evaluate a source. Instead, you must consider these different aspects.
When evaluating your sources, it is important to understand the purpose with which the source was produced. The source may be unbiased and serve simply to educate the audience from a neutral standpoint, or the piece may have been produced with a skewed perspective for the purpose of persuasion. In either case, if the source was produced with motivations different from your own, it may not be an effective source for your project. If a source makes outrageous claims or only one-sided claims without considering both sides, that source is more than likely not a good enough source to be used in research for an unbiased document or proposal for a project.
The accuracy of research sources are of the utmost importance to your technical writing excursion. With a deluge of information available at every turn, confirming the accuracy your sources is what will validate your own ideas and opinions. If your sources cannot be proved accurate, then your research will not be viewed as accurate. If your sources are not accurate then your project, proposal, or project simply has no place being published or finished. Accurate sources are the backbone of the entire project.
Consider the authority of the text. Ask yourself these questions:
o Was it published by a reputable company?
o Is the author a respected scholar?
o Does the author have a specific knowledge of the topic?
If you answer "yes" to all these questions, then you may safely assume that the text comes from an authoritative source and you may use it for your research. However, do not fail to evaluate the text based on the rest of the criteria as well.
The relevancy of your sources will go a long way in determining the strength of your technical document. If you use resources that are not relevant to the research you are performing, the information you gather from these sources will only loosely support the ideas being formulated. Relevant research sources will form the backbone of any technical writing document.
Be sure that the resources you are using have been produced during the appropriate period. Using outdated research materials will lead to a document that is itself outdated. If you were researching heart surgery, you would not want use a source produced in the 1800s. Also, make sure that the sources you are using are not assuming facts that are to come in the future. Looking back at the political example, if you attempt to research from a political parties website and they assume that the budget does not get passed and government shuts down, they may offer the worst case scenario should certain needs not be met, when in reality there is a lot more to be accomplished before the government shuts down. That being said this example assumes from the future and is not temporally accurate or relevant.
Objectivity in your research sources must be considered. Sources written with an agenda will only provide information to further that agenda. Pertinent information could be left out in order to lead the reader down a particular path. You will want to find objective, non-biased sources when performing your research.
In evaluating your sources, you must also consider the coverage of the source, or how extensive is the information that is presented in the source. If you use a source that does not thoroughly cover a topic, in turn your document will not provide sufficient coverage of the topic for your readers.
Refining Your Research Question
At this point in your journey, you will want to evaluate the research you have completed and determine how it will be used in the production of your document. Take the take to properly evaluate your sources and continue to focus you research by refining your research question. Try adding new key words or phrases in order to redirect your research efforts
Now you will continue your research, keeping in mind the new focus you developed by refining your research question. Discover information that is more specific across all media that can be used further to reinforce the ideas in your research project.
Consolidating Your Research
Citations should be used to consolidate your research once you begin your document. However, before you and your group begin working a good way to consolidate research is flash cards with quotes and references listed so that everyone is able to sort through them quickly. Online or computer based flash cards are best so that everyone may have a copy simultaneously. A collaborative bibliography that everyone can note and survey helps keep things in order.
“By not acknowledging a source, the plagiarist steals the recognition that honest researchers should receive, the enhanced respect that a researcher spends a lifetime struggling to earn (Booth, Colomb, and Williams, 285).”
After you have finished your research process, you need to determine what material you can use without violating intellectual property laws covering patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Taking credit for another’s work, whether intentional or not, is not simply an ethical violation, but a legal one. In a business setting, misuse of others’ intellectual party can lead to serious legal ramifications (Anderson 158). .
Once those sources are acquired, how to accurately cite them in the report is crucial. APA and MLA are the standard formats. However, they do often change with the advent of new technologies and ways of accessing them.
The Modern Language Association has its own style for formatting papers and citations. Commonly used by students of the arts and humanities. Many research papers are written in this style and it is appropriate to cite your sources in this format (Russell, Brizee, Angeli, and Keck). You may want to get your own copy of the seventh edition of the MLA style guide shown at the left. It will provide you with all of the information you need to write a proper MLA style paper.
A summary is shorter and more concise than the text is it based on. It seeks to sum up the main ideas of the material to make them more quickly accessible to the reader. You should summarize when you want to present the quintessence of the text without bogging the reader down in unnecessary details. You must remember to include a citation in order to avoid unintentional plagiarism (Axelrod and Cooper 463).
Paraphrase sources when you can convey the same information more clearly, but not necessarily concisely. Since you are putting things in your own words, phrase by phrase, you paraphrase may be nearly as long as the original text. When paraphrasing, you do not leave out anything that contributes to the meaning of the text. Attempt to be objective when paraphrasing, but bear in mind that the paraphrase always reflects your interpretation of the text (Axelrod and Cooper 465). Use this method when you want to make the material more accessible to your reader than the original text.
Do not overuse long quotes in your writing. Instead, use them when summarizing and paraphrasing are inadequate. There are certain occasions when you should use a quote:
o When an author’s specific words are significant and carry more weight
o When you wish to present an author’s argument without bias.
o When you are using the quote as a primary source
You cannot begin your project without first carefully planning how you will accomplish your goals. Thorough planning at the beginning will save you a lot of time throughout the rest of the process.
You must know what your audience needs as well as want they want from your work in order to prepare successful communication for them. Technical writers generally hold themselves accountable for the level of understanding obtained by their audience. This means that if the audience does not understand the technical document, it is the fault of you, not the readers. Therefore thorough audience analysis is crucial as you survey the task that lies ahead. The audience you wish to reach must be identified in the early going in order to provide focus and direction during the research process. Without this consideration, the document you produce may miss the mark in terms relevance for the audience and ultimately fail in it purpose. With the proper identification of your audience, you will be able to more efficiently plan your research by eliminating certain sources from the get go.
Stakeholders are individuals who have something “at stake” in your project. This may be people who have worked with you on the assignment or people whose lives will be influenced more indirectly by your writing. Consider the impact your work will have on the people around you.
One way to solve these problems is for you to set out a reasonable time line that not only allows for some ‘wiggle’ room. The schedule should ensure that each task would be accomplished in plenty of time to allow review, as well as providing a buffer should something unforeseeable prevent you from meeting the initial deadlines.
o Day One: Analyze and confirm the requirements for the project.
o Day Two: Research the necessary components for the project.
o Day Three: Finalize first draft and ask peer to review to ensure that the draft attempts to cover needed components of project.
o …Day X: Submit finalized project.
A timeline like the one above is an example of how to check off what needs to be done in each respective box, and a great visual representation so that the group members know what still needs to be accomplished. Members are able to either place a visual check mark or X in each box so that other members may simply glance at it and see if each days tasks have been accomplished yet or not, and plan accordingly.
Also, set aside an individual timeline for each person so that the rest of the group members can see who is doing what. You will know if everyone is getting accomplishing their tasks or if the entirety of the work is falling on the shoulders of one person.
The greatest potential difficulty is how to manage the team dynamic productively. Do not worry if you do not even know how to begin work together as a group: what to do if group members refuse to do their part, what to do if it is a new group and not many people know each other.
More research could include how to incorporate new programs into your repertoire of experience, and how to plan for those accordingly for you and your groups’ projects at work. If your project dictates that charts, tables, graphs or whatever are to be included, the group or yourself if an individual project or a section, must be aware of how much time it takes to learn a new program if you are unfamiliar with Corel draw or Photoshop. These things must be added into your planning period, and you must research where to learn how to use them and how to effectively use them.
Before you begin working with your group, you should as a group sit down and decide when to meet, how often and what to do if a group member should refuse to participate. A group contract detailing what each person is responsible for and what the consequences are for not finishing responsibilities and cooperating with the group charter.
In addition, if the student or employee is working with another person or with a group, you may be unable to get the rest of the members of their party to do their part of the project either as whole, or in a timely efficient manner. This can be a cause of great concern for the research and planning department if their research holds up the rest of the project, as there is no research for the rest of the project to be based upon. A phenomenal way for the group to navigate around this is to set aside days to all get together and ensure that everyone does their part. If a member continuously refuses to show up for the weekly or bi-weekly meetings or if they show up and simply do nothing while the rest of the group works diligently then the group as a whole can appeal to their governing body for a replacement or removal of that particular group member.
A group charter is a fantastic way to begin a group project. Using a charter ensures that group members know what their responsibilities and consequences for not completing the required tasks to finish the project.
The group charter should take into account what each member is best at and what his or her skill set is. As stated earlier there are people that are best at computer work should keep their responsibilities as close to computer work as they can. This not only guarantees that the project progresses quickly and with great ease.
Once each group member signs off on their responsibilities and consequences that is not a reason to stop meeting and work alone on each person’s task, but instead a weekly or daily meeting to catch up, help one another and to work collaboratively on aesthetics and overall tone of the project is not only recommended but a necessity.
Although there is a charter in place, it is still recommended that group members come together and work with one another on each other’s responsibilities. For example if one particular member that works best on Adobe or on Photoshop they should not be left on their own to do all the work on those programs on their own, but instead the group should come together as a whole and give input and advice for how they want the document to turn out in the end.
Working together on individual responsibilities helps the collaborative process as well as gives the document a cohesive feel instead of a piece wise feel where the reader is sure to feel and see where one person finished and the next started.
To plan and research a project, proposal, or a technical document, you must know who your audience is so that you can appropriately direct and write for the correct discourse community is first. After a group has established their audience, more planning and research can begin.
Before any research or further planning can begin a research question must be formulate only then do sources come into play. Having accurate sources and reliable resources not only lends itself to credibility but also to a more cohesive technical document that the audience can appreciate. Knowing where to and how to gather those sources is necessary in writing technical documents and projects.
Once reliable sources are found and a research question formulated, the group must focus on working successfully together on their journey to complete this project.