Techniques to Get Started

Using Systematic Techniques

Systematic techniques—those that have a preconceived structure—often work well for students who like to observe and reflect on what they observe. These students, who like to analyze and organize, prefer to have their information in neat packages. They tend to like working with details and directions, following instructions, and ordering their information and work habits. Whatever your preferred style, you will benefit if you try something different to get you thinking in a new way. No matter what kind of student you are, try these different techniques to see what works to get you started.

Classic Strategies

You may recognize these classic strategies for getting started as ways to develop or organize an essay—definition, division and classification, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and process analysis. Using this strategy, you would thoughtfully answer a few questions, using topics you might like to explore. As you write these answers and think about your topic, you can make brief notes. After reviewing your notes, you mark the ideas that seem promising. As an added bonus, each of these strategies suggests a logical way to organize your writing. You probably won’t use all of these strategies in one paper, but you might use one or two.

Answer these questions about your topic:

  • Definition: How would I define my topic or subject? Does it belong to a larger group? How can I use it?

  • Division and classification: To what greater category does this topic belong? How do I classify its parts?

  • Comparison and contrast: What is this topic similar to? What is it different from? How is it different?

  • Cause and effect: What caused this topic (situation)? What are its effects? Why does it occur?

  • Process analysis: How does it work? Does it fit into any other processes?

The following example shows one way to use classic strategies to generate ideas.

Topic: Effects of Pfiesteria pollution in the Chesapeake Bay

  • Definition: What exactly is Pfiesteria? Algae and bacteria? What other kinds of water pollution are there? Do I want to include other kinds of water pollution?

  • Division and classification: Is the Pfiesteria pollution of the bay categorized? Does the Pfiesteria belong to a genus of algae or bacteria? The effects on fish, crabs, and humans differ somewhat but are still deadly.

  • Comparison and contrast: Are there other kinds of algae outbreaks? Are any as deadly as Pfiesteria? How have the algae in the bay changed?

  • Cause and effect: What are the causes of the Pfiesteria pollution? Does the farm run-off from Lancaster County affect the Pfiesteria? What are the effects on the human as well as the fish populations? On others who live and work on the bay?

  • Process analysis: How does the Pfiesteria pollution happen? What causes the algae to grow so deadly? How does farm run-off contribute to the problem? Describe the process by which the water becomes deadly. Describe the death process in fish. How about humans?

Traditional Journalist’s Questions

Most students are familiar with the traditional journalist’s questions for gathering information—who, what, where, when, how, and why. Answering these questions about your topic will help to generate details and give you a context for writing about the topic you have selected.

Answer these questions about your topic:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Why?

Here is an example of how you might use these questions to generate ideas and details about a topic.

Topic:  Effects of Pfiesteria pollution of the Chesapeake Bay

  • Who?  Who is causing the Pfiesteria pollution? Whom does it affect? Who cares about it? People who live on the bay? Work on the bay? Fishermen?

  • What?  Should the Pfiesteria outbreak be treated as serious? Narrow topic to Pfiesteria pollution in fish only? What about people?

  • Where?  Just in the Wicomico or Choptank rivers? What part of the bay will I cover? Is the Eastern Shore more affected than the Western Shore?

  • When?  Concentrate my research on the last year? The last five years? Is there a history of Pfiesteria outbreaks that I should look at?

  • How?  Where is the pollution coming from? Amish farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania? Chicken farms on the Eastern Shore?

  • Why?  The Pfiesteria outbreak killed five people. Millions of dollars lost to the fishermen. Economic and health effects significant.

Multiple Perspectives

Looking at your topic from multiple perspectives may give you unexpected ideas and details to pursue. When you are forced to look at your topic from multiple points of view, you see relationships that would not have occurred to you. This approach invites you to look at your topic as an entity, as a process or a part of a process, and as a system or part of a system. It also invites you to look at differences, variability, and prevalence.

Answer these questions about your topic:

  • What is its essence?
  • How would you describe it?
  • How does it fit into a larger group or system?
  • How does it compare with others like it in the group?
  • How does it change over time, and how much does it change before it becomes something else?
  • How is it unique?

Here is an example of some possible answers to our questions about the topic.

Topic:  Environmental pollution of the Chesapeake Bay

What is its essence?   Pfiesteria is a form of algae pollution? Bacteria?

How would you describe it?   How does the Pfiesteria pollution show itself? Can we tell before the fish start dying? Millions of dead fish? Algae-covered shorelines? Cloudy, smelly water? Causes a type of human dementia.

How does it fit into a larger group or system?  What other kinds of pollution are there in the bay? Does it pollute water primarily? What other algae does it compete with?

How does it compare with others like it in the group?  Is Pfiesteria the only deadly algae found there?

How does it change over time, and how much does it change before it becomes something else?  How long does it take for Pfiesteria to become deadly? Does it transmute? Is it ever not deadly? Has it changed over the years? Have the effects of the outbreak changed?

How is it unique?  Is Pfiesteria one of a kind or one of many strains? Why is this strain so deadly? Do all algae outbreaks affect humans?

When you use these techniques and strategies for generating ideas about your topic, you can also include notes about how you will find your supporting evidence. For example, in our sample topic about Pfiesteria, you might check the Washington Post archives for the last year to find timely information about the most recent Pfiesteria outbreak or even visit the EPA Web page to see whether any information is available there. The Maryland Fish and Wildlife Department will also have information. It’s important to have some ideas about where you can go to get more details and perhaps even more ideas about how you want to treat your topic.

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