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.

Classic Strategies

Answer these questions about your topic:

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

Example of the Classic Strategies Approach

Topic: Effects of Pfiesteria pollution in the Chesapeake Bay

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.

Traditional Journalist's Questions

Answer these questions about your topic:

Here's how you might use these questions to generate ideas and details about a topic.

Example of Traditional Journalist's Questions

Topic: Effects of Pfiesteria pollution of the Chesapeake Bay

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.

Multiple Perspectives

Answer these questions about your topic:

Here's an example of some possible answers to our questions on the topic:

Example of Using Multiple Perspectives

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.