Research for Technical Report Writing

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to: 

  • Determine an appropriate scope of investigation
  • Apply brainstorming methods, like concept mapping, to refine your topic
  • Select appropriate resources to get background information on your subject (encyclopedias, dictionaries, web sources)

1. Start with a Topic

The first step to any research project is to choose a topic.  Often you can choose your own topic, however at times you may be given a specific topic or asked to choose from a predetermined list.


What are you interested in finding out?

  • Select a topic that interests you whenever possible.
  • Gather and read background information.
  • Make a list of key concepts and write a research question or topic statement.  It's important to be as specific as possible!
    • Your research question or topic statement may change once you start searching.  If the question is too broad, you will need to go back and narrow your topic further. 

2. Gather Background Information

When you start thinking about your research project you should start by gathering background information.  This information can help you to:

  • Familiarize yourself with a topic.
  • Define a research topic:
    • Identify the main ideas and key concepts that you can use as you progress through the research process.
    • Discover related concepts.
  • Locate other potentially useful sources that you can use to complete your report.

Some useful sources that you can use to gather background information are:

Finally, it's important that by the end of gathering background information, you have a sound grasp of your topic. If you can't easily discuss or explain your topic to friends and/or family, we recommend that you do further background research. Any gaps in understanding will cause issues as you continue to build your search strategy and may affect your understanding of the literature as you prepare to write your final report.

3. Things to Consider Before You Start Your Research

The following are some questions that you may want to ask yourself before continuing with your research.

  • What kind of information sources will I need?
  • How much information do I need?
    • A few facts or as much as I can find?
  • Which time period should be covered by my search:
    • The current year? The last five years?

Narrowing Down Your Topic: An Example

Formulating a research question is often the most difficult part. You need to start by selecting a topic that interests you and then narrow it further if possible.  The Five Ws are useful for narrowing your topic in that they allow you to examine a topic completely. 

For any topic, start with the Five Ws:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How? (in some cases)


Say we wanted to write an essay regarding bottled water.  How could you go from topic to research question?

  • Who: consumers
  • What: environmental impact
  • Where: disposal sites
  • When: no time limit

From this, we could formulate the following research question:

What is the environmental impact of the disposal of plastic water bottles?


But how can you distinguish a strong research question from one that is weak?

  • How does trash pollute the environment?
    • Miss: This question is too broad.  To narrow it, one would need to identify a type of trash.
  • What is the impact of bottled water on the environment?
    • Close: This question needs to be narrowed a little further.  What aspect of bottled water?
  • What is the environmental impact of plastic water bottles?
    • A hit


You might not always be able to tell the strength of your research question from the outset.  Any weaknesses will come across when you start gathering information.  If your question is too broad or narrow, you can always go back and modify as necessary.