Much of what experienced researchers learn is how to narrow down their questions to something they can study. Sure, we might be motivated by the big questions: “How can we cure cancer?” or “How did the universe begin—really?” Research that is doable, however, begins much more modestly. Half the battle in starting a research paper is recognizing an undoable question, and then deciding not to pursue it.
As with much of what I know about writing, I learned this when I wasn’t writing. On my 40th birthday I followed the advice of all magazines targeted to women over 40 (which, like a typical overachiever, I’d started reading at age 39) and decided to take up a new sport, something that would give my dwindling years new meaning, stall the ravages of time on my weakening frame, and make me feel “empowered.” I was torn between surfing and tennis. Looking around at the Midwestern landscape I realized that unless I could learn to surf on oceans of corn, a racquet was a better investment than a board. Down to my local tennis club I went.
My tennis coach had everything the magazines told me a 40-year old woman would need for that journey to rejuvenation: He looked like a young George Clooney. He also proved to be surprisingly good at tennis. A great believer in learning by doing, Sven (let’s call him Sven) would feed me upwards of 50 balls while counting the number of serves I managed to hit in out of the number I’d been fed: “1 of 2, 1 of 3, 2 of 4—back on track for fifty percent.” But he also introduced me to a concept that has become critical to me for starting research projects off right—“the Toss.”
A Good Toss, if you’re a beginner in tennis, goes more or less straight up and down, falling, if you did nothing to interrupt it on its course, just over the baseline in front of you, not too far out that you have to lean way over to hit it, and certainly not behind your back. Seeing me arch painfully backwards to smack a ball clearly beyond my reach, Sven would advise, “Don’t hit the bad tosses.” Sven managed to be both direct and kind, though he occasionally had the pained look of someone still mulling over what fate had led him to shepherding middle-aged women through their first serves rather than making a go of it on the pro tour.
Sven, I could see, was laboring to find something to praise watching serve after serve go awry. For a long time it was merely my ability to recognize a Bad Toss. Watching me finally catch, rather than try to hit, a ball I threw over my back shoulder, he affirmed: “That’s right. Don’t hit those bad tosses.” And then there was that magic day where I threw a ball up in the air, straight up. I was getting ready to nail it just off its peak when, before I even made contact, Sven said, “That one is going in.” He could tell it was going in, he said, just by the Toss.
Starting a research paper is similar to serving in this regard. You have to spend more time than you think on the question that drives your paper—the Toss, as it were, of all else that will follow. And it is here where a Good Toss can make all the difference as to where your paper is going to land.
Let’s say you start off with a question like, “How does sexism influence the media in their coverage of women running for public office?” You have the problem that “the media” could be anything: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards—are all included in the media. Public office includes everything from county coroner to president. Whole departments study sexism. You could only get a piece of that question in an 8-10 page paper you’ve been given three weeks to write. A question like that is like a toss that’s far too out in front—you could lean out as far as you can to try to hit it, and you’d still never get all of it. Don’t even try it. You can say something profound about something modest (perhaps about the portrayal of one particular female politician by two different newspapers), and put some power behind it.
Maybe you’re not reaching for the stars, but setting your sights too low. When you’re serving, if you toss too low you’ll likely hit the ball straight into the net; writing to a topic that’s too safe will similarly get you nowhere. Let’s say your question is what books made the New York Times bestseller list in 1969. That question isn’t going anywhere except a list of books. Your twelve-year-old nephew could Google the answer to that one. If the answer to your research question is Google-able, it’s beneath you to take a swing at it.
As Sven says, don’t even try to hit a Bad Toss. You’re better off working for a Good Toss than wasting time chasing a bad one down. Take that New York Times bestseller list question, for example. You might wonder instead why the bestseller list is now about 50% longer than it used to be in 1969.
Sure lots of things could go wrong with a Good Toss. You could trip over your shoelace. You could do something funky with your racquet. You could pull an abdominal muscle on the way through the swing. It is up to you, after all, to follow through, in tennis as in writing, and not screw it up. But starting out badly can only end badly.
In my second year of tennis instruction I took lessons from a beefy woman who just months before joining the club had thwacked her way to the top of the NCAA women’s rankings (Sven had by that time moved to Northern California to live in a yurt and play in a Dave Matthews tribute band). Unwilling to even feign interest in my story of mid-life rejuvenation, impervious to my efforts to start chit-chat that would extend the water break, she fed me ball after ball in alternating cross-court style, making me run the baseline until I could feel my age in my knees. On our first lesson on serves I tossed the ball up, excited to show off what I had learned…and then banged it into the net. “That toss,” she said. “It’s just so important.” Yes it is.