Preparing for Research


Key Terms

Habits of Mind – Skills writers use often subconsciously or without thought that allow them to create quality work and write towards their audience properly.

Empathy – The concept of acknowledging another person’s views on the given topic.

Binary Topics – An ‘either or’ topic that can only be determined by going one way or another.

Non-Binary Topics – A topic that assesses multiple viewpoints and allows the reader to make a determination based on several perspectives.



Learning Objectives

I can identify what the four key habits of mind are and understand how they influence my writing.

I can understand the different ways to select a research topic based on my topic.

I can identify the difference between binary and non-binary topics in academic writing.

I can entertain critical thinking strategies and how they add complexity to my writing.



What are “Habits of Mind”

Habits of mind are the skills writers use often subconsciously or without thought. The habits when properly developed allow writers to increase the quality of their work and ultimately create pieces that hold the attention of their audience. The four habits of mind include inquiring, seeking and valuing complexity, understanding that academic writing is a conversation, and understanding that writing is a process.  These habits of mind allow writers to be able to contribute to conversations through writing, select topics that will elevate their research, and solve problems through critical thinking.


  1. Inquiring: Inquiring often begins through observation.  Academic writers and critical thinkers develop questions based off their own observations. Considering a question in its entirety leads you to examine alternatives.
  2. Seeking and valuing complexity:  Critical thinkers and academic writers develop reflections on observations that they make.  Issues are then examined from multiple points of views through binary and non-binary thinking methods.  However, good questions that lead to a full understanding of the specific topic avoid binary thinking.
  3. Understanding that academic writing is a conversation: Academic writers take into consideration the ideas of others.  They allow themselves to understand other writers from their point of view as well as how they think.  Academic writers are willing to contribute their own ideas, while focusing on achieving a mutual understanding with other writers.
  4. Understanding that writing is a process: Writing is more than just placing words on a page.  It is a process of gathering information and material on a particular topic, while brainstorming and developing ways to convey ideas on that topic to an audience through drafting, revising, and editing methods.

Writing as a Conversation

Many writers see success in writing as though their works were a conversation. It is important to remember that you are never the first broach a topic, and instead realize that you are joining an ongoing discussion. Greene establishes that before you enter the discussion, it important to ask yourself these key questions:

  •       What topics have people been talking about?
  •       What is a relevant problem?
  •       What kinds of evidence might persuade the readers?
  •       What objections might the readers have?
  •       What is at stake?

By answering these questions before you enter the discussion, you will have a better grasp of the situation at hand and be able to contribute more to the resolution.

It is important to note that one of the questions involves finding out the potential objections of the readers. Before a point is declared, a writer must understand not only their own viewpoints, but any oppositions’ views as well that way they can prepare counters. This understanding of the other voices in the discussion is considered “empathy”. For example, if you are arguing that your college expand its library, it would be important to prepare for objections such as the project being expensive. By doing so, not only do you sound more knowledgeable on your topic which will help persuade readers, but you offer alternatives to your opposition which may lead to compromise.

Since you are joining in an ongoing conversation on a topic, it is also important to stand on the shoulders of those who argued the topic before you so that you may benefit from their efforts. The opinions and view points of students will likely carry less weight than professional writers who have more experience arguing the topic at hand in the academic setting. Be sure to include references in your writing that add to your credibility so that you may develop the authority necessary to leave your mark on a topic.

Selecting Research Topics

One of the first aspects you should look at before selecting a topic is whether it is binary or non-binary. A binary topic will often only appear to have two sides. Topics that involve being either “for or against” are topics to be avoided in favor of non-binary topics. These topics feature a wide array of view points and allow for an large amount of different arguments to be made. These non-binary topics allow you to delve deeper into a topic by answering questions such as “why” or “how”, rather than just whether one side of an argument is better than another. If your research question can be answered in a single word, your research topic is most likely binary and should be rethought in a way that allows you to answer your question in a more complex way.

In order to craft your research question, begin by first making observations. Observe the world around you, what peaks your curiosity? Take note of any questions these observations lead you to. Doing so will allow you to view your topic from different directions and widen your scope of possible research questions. Lastly, try to find alternatives to your observations. If you find an issue in something you have observed, ask yourself, “how could this be changed” or “how could this be made better”. Doing so will put you on the right track to find a topic that will allow you to find an abundance of research and create a complex answer to your question.

You can take this a step further and go deeper by using the advice of Greene and Zalinsky. They suggestion you reflect on your observations, examine your topic from different viewpoints, and ask issue-based questions (Greene and Zalinsky). Reflecting on your observations involves asking yourself questions about your observations that will further drive your curiosity. Ask yourself why these observations occur, what the effects of the observations are, and who does the observation affect. Following this reflection, try to see your topics from as many viewpoints as possible. Doing so will give you a sense of empathy for the opposition and not only expand your understanding but give you the ability to counter the opposition. Lastly, try to ask issue-based questions. These are questions that are able to be disputed and argued rather than having a single answer. If there is no argument going on for your topic and you are agreeing with a topic that is already widely agreed upon, you may want to consider changing topics or finding a way to change your stance on the issue such as asking how it could be improved.

Once you have selected a set of topics, you should look for an abundance of information regarding it, observations that generally surprise you, and concepts that you are still confused about (Ballenger). A topic with an abundance of information means that others have done research into the topic and will give you plenty to work with. If you can only find a few sources that relate to your research, your topic may not have enough research done to give you a fair chance at creating an argument. A topic that surprises you will likely surprise others as well. If your topic has an obvious answer and offers no surprise, the purpose for others reading your paper will likely become blurred. Lastly, search for signs of confusion. A topic that confuses you will encourage you to research further and put yourself in the shoes of your audience. By starting from the point of confused and becoming an expert by the end of your research, you will have learned more than if you started with experience and became an expert with minimal research. When looking for signs of confusion in your topic ask yourself these questions:

  •       Am I uncertain about what this might mean? ​
  •      Is this topic more complicated than it seemed at first? ​

If you can honestly say that your topic follows these criteria, then you are on the right track and should continue with your research into the topic. If you understand your topic perfectly or if your topic is less complicated, you may want to consider adding more complexity to your topic.

Critical Thinking Strategies

According to Green and Zalinsky, critical thinking strategies ultimately help the writer to create the basis for their writing in two distinct ways. The first being that it adds an element of  complexity in writing as well as proves how smart you are through your analysis of situations and ideas. To start, this complexity of writing operates on a series of questions that the author can ask themselves in order to organize their thoughts. These questions are as follows:

  • What assumptions and opinions are there on the topic I am writing about?
  • What alternative opinions are there and how can I find them?
  • Can I anticipate opposing arguments and be able to refute them?
  • Are there experiences that I have had that can be sympathised or refuted by other authors?
  • Can I identify the causes and consequences of others ideas?

By asking these questions, it can be easier to understand that we do many of these critical thinking strategies subconsciously, but by laying them out we can identify greater and richer meaning behind our thoughts. If we extract that greater meaning, we can furthermore put richer content into all of our future papers. In essence, what these questions are trying to do is pick your brain and ask you the right questions before you conduct your papers to ensure that you are on the right track before you start writing.

The other element of this is that your critical thinking strategies, if conducted properly, should give your prospective audience a sense that you are able to prove how smart you are on this particular topic through your analysis of situations and ideas. Your analysis of other people’s thoughts will ultimately make yours seem more appealing if they are done properly. Many times people confuse their analysis with their own personal opinion, which should be avoided within reason. You clearly would like to have a stance on the given matter, but too much of a stance can ultimately hurt your argument as well as others perspectives on you as a writer.

Fine Tuning Your Critical Thinking

As we already addressed, critical thinking is something that we have all done since the beginning of our writing careers. As we have become more mature in our writing, elements of this model are increasingly more apparent. However, just like most things there are always ways that we can improve our work. In general, the spirit of inquiry is one of the most beautifying elements of academic writing. Inquiry implies that you are curiously assessing a topic to the point that it furthers your overall perspective on the said topic. However, solely rigorous review does not exactly qualify as true inquiry. The best way to inquire properly is best said in the worlds of Ballenger in the Sea and the Mountain analogy he uses. In summary, the analogy identifies true inquiry as bouncing between the spheres of reflection and experience. To Ballenger, he best identifies the mountain as the reflectionary realm and the sea as experience. The reason why is that when one is in the sea, they are able to look up to the mountain and look at the topic from an abstract view combined with previous experiences. After some time, one can then climb the mountain and look out at the sea and reflect upon that created (Ballenger, 28).

Ballenger also talks about how writing can be looked at by asking questions. However, it should be especially noted that this information has been critiqued heavily because some say that this way of writing encourages inquiring on the basis of binary thinking. You will have better success when it comes to inquiring if you avoid this type of thinking. Despite this, Ballenger encourages six different subdivisions of writing, which follows as:

  • Value – Good or Bad?​
  • Relational – Similar or Dissimilar?​
  • Policy – What Should Be Done?
  • Interpretation – What Might it Mean?​
  • Hypothesis – What is the Best Explanation?​
  • Claim – Are the Assertions Valid?​

As you can see, the relational section is a primary example of binary thinking. By looking at something as being similar or dissimilar, it can cause one to make the assumption that something is one way or the other. Know that nothing in writing is black and white, and avoiding this style of writing is critical if you wish to have complexity in your writing. Note that when it comes to complexity, many students have difficulty not because of content, but because of wordiness. Using too much verbosity can cause confusion and draw away from your argument. As strange as it sounds, complexity should be complex, not wordy.

As stressed in the early chapters of this textbook, writing is a fluid and recursive process. It is not linear. There is no way you can write a successful paper in one shot and have it be perfect. The best way to ensure that you are writing valuable and beautifying work is through constant drafting and revision. By doing this, you will have successful papers that will be valuable and concise.

Assignment Suggestions

  1. Select a particular topic that you are interested in that may be controversial in some way. It could be political, social, economic or cultural in type, but once you select a topic attempt to find peer reviewed articles on the topic. The finding of peer reviewed sources should not be difficult, but once you start collecting you should notice a variety of opinions in the papers. Analyze the different opinions and write a short reflectionary paper that takes the opinions of other authors and compares them to your own. Avoid binary thinking at all costs as no issue is ever two sided.
  2. Write a short essay explaining how writing is a conversation by analyzing another author’s work and applying it to what was discussed in this chapter. Explain how the author uses empathy to further their arguments. Be sure to acknowledge what makes the argument work in these essays and how you can apply these techniques into your own writing.

Reflection Questions

  1. Why should binary thinking should be avoided when it comes to academic research?
  2. Why do you think empathy is such an important element of writing effectively and understanding other perspectives?
  3. How do you feel adapting critical thinking strategies before writing will best help your writing in a whole? Specifically address which techniques work best for you.


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