Brainstorming inquiry questions

Welcome to step one in your quest to produce a researched essay!

At this point, all you know is that you need to write 4-6 pages about a topic relating to 19th century American literature using 3-4 outside sources.

But what should you write about? This is your big chance to start the brainstorming process while developing an “inquiry question.” That’s just a fancy word for the big question your essay tries to answer.

Work through each step below to develop your vague, shapeless ideas into solid inquiry questions strong enough to focus your whole essay. Follow the steps in order, and take as much time as you want with each step. This process could take a few minutes, or several days. Rushing yourself through the brainstorm process will only make for painful and confusing writing sessions next week.

Step 1

Divide a piece of paper (or word processing document) into four parts. Label each part as follows:

  • Topics
  • Essential questions
  • Foundation questions
  • Keywords

Step 2

Now it’s time to think. By yourself, or with a select group of your colleagues, make a list of all the topics we’ve discussed this trimester in class that interested you. The list should be pretty long, and it should include everything from serious topics you know next-to-nothing about, to ridiculous topics that would qualify your paper for an automatic F (if I gave such a thing). If you can’t think of anything you were interested in, just close your eyes and imagine something we’ve done in class. Write down the first thing that you see. Talk to someone about it and ask them to remind you about something else we’ve done. Write that down. You never know what might come in handy in the next step.

Take plenty of time to gather your thoughts during this stage. Visualize each day of class you can and pick out details that interested you. Use the blog to jog your memory.

Step 3

Now it’s time to think about “essential questions.” These are BIG questions that don’t have a simple answer you could find on Wikipedia or in some book. The answers to these questions come from you–you have to evaluate the information you find in books and make decisions about what YOU think about it.

To get started, go back to your list of possible topics, and find one that seems to hold your interest most. Perhaps you listed several topics that were related, indicating an area of interest. Maybe you’re not interested in any of the topics you listed. If that’s the case, you need to spend more time brainstorming, including discussing topics with your classmates, parents, teachers, and me.

Once you’ve selected a topic to focus on for now, write it across the top of your second box (Essential Questions).

Now you need a list of questions, probably about 3-4 solid questions that reflect big issues with many possible answers.

These “essential questions” should require you (the person who will attempt to answer it) to “evaluate” and “synthesize.” That means, to take all kinds of facts and information from class discussion and research and come up with your own interpretation. For example, if I were interested in finding out more about Emily Dickinson, I might ask:

  • If Emily Dickinson were alive today, would she be considered insane?
  • How does biographical information about her life add to our understanding of her poetry? Does biographical info really “add” anything?
  • What are her main topics of interest, and why?
  • What are the main types of images she uses in her poetry and why?

REMEMBER: Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple Google search. These should be thought-provoking questions that make you express your own informed opinions.

Step 4

Now it’s time to come up with some simpler questions to get you started researching.

Choose one of your “essential questions,” and write it at the top of the next section. Below that, come up with 6-10 “foundation” questions about the simple information you’ll need to come up with informed opinions about the Big Question. (They’re called “foundation” questions because they help you come up with the basic knowledge that will form the foundation of your opinion.) These are usually What, Where, When, and How types of questions. Going back to Emily Dickinson, here are some examples:

  • What topics did Emily Dickinson mostly write about?
  • What did she like to do when she wasn’t writing? What were her hobbies? Jobs? Pastimes?
  • What year did she begin to write about death?
  • Who was she involved with?
  • How did she communicate with her friends?


Step 5: Last activity today!

Take a look at all the foundation questions you wrote, and pick out key words you could use to search online and in periodical databases. My list of keywords for each of the questions above would look like this:

  • Emily Dickinson, topics, common
  • Emily Dickinson, hobbies, jobs, pastimes
  • Emily Dickinson, timeline, interest in death
  • Emily Dickinson, relationships
  • Emily Dickinson, friendship, letter-writing, visiting


Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, all of this could take you a few minutes, or a few days. Don’t go on to the next step (research) until you’ve got a solid “essential” question, and nice big list of “foundation” questions, and a good list of keywords for searching. Feel free to use your friends, classmates, and me as much as you want to help you expand, focus, and refine.