Pen on written document

A writing process

By Vinetta Bell

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

In the preliminary research stage, the writer begins the process of finalizing the topic (and thus, eventually, the thesis or hypothesis) and documenting the sources to be used for guidance and support.

Techniques and strategies

table of contents

Reading a book’s table of contents can help a writer reach a better understanding of a topic. Image source.

  • using an online search engine or print resources at the local media center or library to gain familiarity with a topic
  • reading a text’s table of contents, index, and chapter headings in order to determine one’s primary interest for the assignment
  • examining sources to determine the availability of authentic, credible, current resources for documenting one’s topic
  • selecting a final topic for a thesis or hypothesis that permits focused research and writing

Finding the scope

The preliminary research stage serves as an important connection between pre-writing and formulating a thesis. This stage is characterized by many of the components of the pre-writing stage, such as gathering information from a variety of sources. But rather than thinking broadly, as in pre-writing, the goal in the preliminary research stage is to narrow things down and hone in on a reasonable scope for the topic.

This stage enables the writer to understand which of his or her ideas can be documented by sources other than the writer’s own personal opinion or the unsupported opinions of others. Even an opinion piece needs to be substantiated by a reasoned argument that can be verified by the audience through documented research. Preliminary research also permits the writer to change his or her mind about the intended topic before too much time and effort are committed to the process.

Focus upon a specific topic that is sustained throughout the research and writing process is the goal of the preliminary research stage. For example, the student who is interested in filmmaking might discover that the topic is too broad for the assignment at hand. Through preliminary research, the student gains more familiarity with the topic and discovers that she is fascinated by sound design, a more focused topic than the broad field of filmmaking. By narrowing the topic to sound design, the topic becomes more manageable and the student can conduct effective research within the assignment’s specified completion time.

Preliminary research can also lead a writer to a topic outside the scope of what he or she had originally intended. The student who chose to write about sound design may stumble upon an article about sound design in the film Jaws, and decide she’s particularly interested in the way subtle sounds — like the low base thud signaling the arrival of the deadly shark — can be used to manipulate the audience of a horror film. She may even steer away from filmmaking completely and choose to write about sound and human psychology, or about physics and human anatomy in considering how sound is handled by the human ear.

While the seemingly free association of ideas in the preliminary research stage may resemble the brainstorming processes used in pre-writing, the difference is that preliminary research limits the writer to ideas that are supported by sources. Thus, it prepares the writer to formulate a thesis or hypothesis that can be backed by research.