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Generate and Refine Ideas

Background Reading or Researching

Background reading or researching may be very useful for you if you are not familiar with a topic that’s been assigned for you to write about or if you want a refresher on the basics of a topic. Begin background reading by looking up a subject idea in general reference works such as encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, or textbooks. These works generally are considered unsuitable references for a college-level research paper, but your goal is to generate ideas for your research paper, not create a reference list out of this reading. Your next step in background reading or researching is to look through periodicals, academic journals, and books. (Don’t read entire chapters of books, but rather read the chapters that most closely relate to your interests.) You may wish to take notes you can refer to at this stage, but instead of writing down factual information, write down your major ideas. At this stage, you don’t want your major ideas to “get lost” or “bogged down” in pages of factual notes. You may want to write down the titles of works that were helpful to you, so you can revisit them when you need to collect information. For more information about researching, consult the handout Gather and Evaluate Information.


Let’s look an example of a writer who had to write a research paper for his business ethics class.

Chapter 1: An Overview of Business Ethics

“. . . Internet communication is almost completely unregulated, but by the time you read this, some regulation will probably exist. On-line services companies such as Prodigy and America Online will have to continue establishing ethical Standards for their networks.”

Ferrell, O.C., & Franklin, J. (1997). Business ethics: ethical decisions making and cases. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.


This writer began background reading by re-reading chapter one of his textbook. He discovered that he was most interested in the social responsibility aspects of business ethics, and he would be interested in researching online service companies and ethical standards.