Using questions to frame your writing.

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Framed cat by Domiriel, Attribution-NonCommercial License

A few months ago I attended a lecture by our Massey-based Lisa Emerson. Lisa’s field of research and teaching is writing for science and she has authored several books on the subject of writing. If you ever get the chance to go to one of her seminars they are very worthwhile.

One of the things Lisa discussed which really clicked for me was using questions as a framework for your writing and thinking. I am not sure I can do justice to what she was explaining, but I can’t find anything else about it to direct you to so I will give it a go.

We are all aware that a piece of academic writing answers a question. This is your research question and it is what the argument of your work answers. But what Lisa was talking about was also using questions to frame the subsections, even down to the paragraphs of the work. She gave an example of the introduction. The introduction needs to tell the reader what the overall research question is and make a case for why that’s important as well as explaining how your piece of work will answer it. Lisa’s examples of questions to use as a framework to write to were these:

  • What am I doing and why?
  • How did I get into this?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What exactly are my questions?
  • Why did I miss this question off?
  • How is this piece of work structured?

Ok so now you will notice that these questions are the same topics I just referred to as being needed in an introduction, so you might wonder how framing them as questions helps. Well I think it helps you to see that your job is to supply the reader with the answers. And not just by providing the reader with information from which they can figure out the answers themselves – you have to actually tell them the answer that you have concluded.

Each section of your work answers a question, even each paragraph. Knowing this can help you see when to start a new paragraph – when you have finished that question and are on to the next.

Each section – a collection of paragraphs – answers a bigger question and you also must make sure that you tell the reader the answer, as you summarise that section of work.

You start to be able to see your work, whether it’s a whole dissertation or just an assignment as a series of questions you present, and answer, defending and explaining your answer with reference to the literature or your research results.

As well as providing structure, questions help you see your work as a piece of critical writing. The questions you are answering are ones you can expect critics to raise about the topic. You raise them and present the answers in order to make a case for your conclusions. This is your argument .

Now don’t let me mislead you into thinking that the questions stay there – question marks and all. Although you sometimes see this done, usually the questions are not presented as questions and instead they become topic sentences of paragraphs. But planning your document out as a series of questions – what am I trying to say? – can help get you going. Use questions as subheadings in your document. They will form an outline your supervisor can comment on to let you know if you are on the right track. They will give you small chunks to work on so you can see your progress and have manageable tasks.

Whether you are stuck on a particular part or just starting out with planning, try setting out your questions. I really think it will help.

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