Research is a creative process, involving both analysis, in which you take things apart, and synthesis, in which you put things together. Your unique product will be the result of your individual thinking and ways of understanding and communicating about your topic.
Once you have an idea for a research project, a good way to begin working with it is to make a concept map. This will help you translate your idea into a manageable topic and generate questions for you to focus on in your research. Here is a generic example of one way to organize a concept map:
Here is an example of how a concept map works:
You have a general idea for what you'd like to research:
A friend of mine has a dog she takes to nursing homes and hospitals to visit the residents and patients for therapy. I'd like to write on pet therapy.
Start your concept map like this (on a big piece of paper, if possible)
Brainstorm ideas or issues or concepts related to "pet therapy" and add them to the map:
Now add another layer of ideas related to these:
Keep brainstorming and adding layers until you've listed everything you can think of. It's OK to cross things out or change the way they are linked.
Now that you have a pretty complete map of your ideas, you can decide how much to include based on the scope of your project.
Use your final map to generate a list of questions to answer in your paper or areas where you need more information. Here are some possible questions for the example we've been using:
Now you are ready to state your topic. Continuing with our example:
Title: The Many Benefits of Pet Therapy
Topic Statement: This paper will explore the use of pets in therapeutic roles, focusing on the benefits - physical, mental, and social - that this type of treatment can offer.
TIP: As you carry out your research, your questions may change. Some questions may turn out not to be interesting after all, and new, more interesting questions may arise. Allow yourself to be flexible. You will recognize the point in your research process when your list of questions has stabilized, or when you have reached the limit of your scope for the current project.
TIP: You can use your question list to synthesize the information you gather into a coherent whole: at the beginning of your presentation, enumerate the questions you intend to answer; then answer each one; then draw your conclusions at the end.
The Concept Maps site at the University of Illinois has more information on how to make and use these helpful tools, including examples of several types of maps.