Louise Erdrich once said that “Questions are keys that unlock ideas.”

At this point in your research writing efforts, the ability to generate ideas is critical. A system of questioning called heuristics becomes invaluable to researchers. The term sounds a lot more complex than it really is. Simply put, heuristics is the set of questions researchers pose to explore and focus their research. The heuristics, or questions, become the most reliable and trustworthy “friends” of the research writer during the entire challenging but rewarding process of the research paper.

The initial “keys” to unlock ideas are general questions, but they help you to refocus on the most crucial resource you have . . . yourself, to examine your needs as a writer and researcher, and to help you move out towards fulfilling your readers’ or audience’s needs.

Look at these three “starter” questions:

What do I already know about my topic?

To address this first question, a focused freewriting or brainstorming session that lets you wind your way through your mental crevices to find connections, links, stories, memories, associations, or even emotions tied to your topic can be very useful. You will probably be surprised to see how much you already know about your topic if you let your response to this first question touch on real experiences, conversations, people, scenes, and narratives that have been a part of your life.

What do I want or need to find out about my topic?

The second question can enable you to start filling in some gaps or voids in the radius of your experiences, comfort level, or knowledge with the topic. Your response to this questions can come in the form of more specific questions that you really have about your topic.

For instance, a student research writer whose career goal was to become a restaurant manager and who was working at a restaurant still had the following questions about his research topic, restaurant management:

How much education is required to become a restaurant manager?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of owning a restaurant?

What are some good examples of poor management?

Are there strategies for finding ways to keep your patience when dealing with difficult customers or employees?

Who are some of the most successful people in this field?

Is this a career that offers high paying salary potential?

Note the variety of specific questions used with different “starter” prompts, such as, “How much . . .”, “What . . .”, “Are there . . .”, and “Who . . .”. Additional prompts to “prime the pump” for specific questions are “When . . .”, “Where . . .”, “How . . .”, “Why . . .”, “Suppose . . .”, “What if . . .”, etc.

The use of these questions is to create a map of sorts so that you can get directions towards your research. The questions, in a sense, become places you need to visit and your research for answers to these questions becomes your vehicle so you can arrive safely, securely, and comfortably. Like any road trip, however, dead ends, curves, swerves, traffic, delays, and detours should be expected. The third heuristic step can bring us to some very important destinations.

What do my readers/audience want or need to know about my topic?

This third and final question becomes an exciting and challenging step in the research process. Naturally, in order to find out what your readers want to know a movement away from self-generated ideas and questions becomes necessary.

Primary research, the investigation of immediate and direct sources, becomes a way we can go the horse’s mouth, so to speak, to bring research to life and to begin to address our readers’ needs.

Taking advantage of our senses (sights, sounds, “the feel,” and even smells and tastes) through our own powers of observation enlarges our point of view and permits us to make connections with other’s ideas.

Observing busy public places, for instance, like malls, parks, beaches and airports can provide a host of details in explorations of topics associated with the fields of anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Observations of courtroom proceedings, educational environments (classrooms, forums), and political or town hall meetings can give you insights into topics concerning law, education, and government.

Interviews are very effective search activities. They can be excellent tools for learning about the specifics of a field from an expert: an artist, a doctor, a teacher, a judge. They can also serve to provide a sense of time, place, and mood. An historian, for instance, might convey a context for the time period along with information like names and dates. An elderly relative talking about the Depression era or World War II might talk about the mood of the country or of the difficulty of living under those circumstances.

Surveys and opinion polls can provide data on cultural phenomenon and attitudes. If, for instance, your topic might lead you to an interest in voting patterns, attitudes on sexual behaviors, or recreational habits, polls of several hundred people can be done in a relatively short period of time, through a social networking generated survey or poll. Of course, questions should be worded carefully, and results must be interpreted properly.

Perhaps the most useful heuristic tool is to get others to ask you questions that they genuinely have about your topic. Family, friends, classmates, co-workers, and professionals can all serve to help you really find out what areas, concerns, and interests about your topic others are curious about. And this assistance from others will help lead you to even further questions that are more focused and more narrowed towards your topic.

Heuristics helps us by keeping us at the center of things, and better prepares us for the research of what previous scholars have discovered and expressed in writing.