The Craft of Research, Third edition

Praise for the first edition:

"An easy-to-read guide with helpful hints for almost anyone who puts words to paper."—San Francisco Bay Guardian

"A well-constructed, articulate reminder of how important fundamental questions of style and approach, such as clarity and precision, are to all research"—Times Literary Supplement

"A practical guide to the process of doing research . . . a book to give to any student embarking on a research project."—KLIATT, bimonthly magazine for librarians and teachers of young adults

"I recommend it to my students . . . and keep a copy close at hand as the first option offered to students who ask 'Just how should I begin my research?'"—Business Library Review

"Highly recommended"—Choice

An interview with Wayne C.Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams
authors of The Craft of Research, Third edition

Question: How did you first come up with the idea for this book?

Answer: The Craft of Research grew out of afternoon conversations in a faculty coffee lounge at the University of Chicago. Wayne was on the UC Press's editorial board and had been asked for advice about updating the long-time standard, Turabian's A Manual for Writers. The three of us had collaborated in teaching Chicago's advanced writing course, the Little Red Schoolhouse, and regularly talked over issues in our teaching and research. So Wayne raised the question the next time he saw Joe and Greg in the lounge. Since none of us had read Turabian recently enough to remember it, we began by asking ourselves not how to change the book but what student researchers needed to know, what they didn't know, and what might be the best ways to help them learn as they gained experience. That exercise was interesting enough to occupy us for a few weeks, so that by the time we talked to the Press (and had re-read Turabian), we had well-developed ideas that weren't suitable for a reference book, but did seem promising for a book of another kind. Before long, we were drafting outlines of the book and sketching chapters.

Craft of Research authors
Joseph M. Williams, Gregory G. Colomb, Wayne C.Booth
Question: Did you have particular students in mind when you planned the book? Who will benefit from the advice outlined in the book?

Answer: Since this began as an intellectual puzzle rather than a marketing initiative, we started thinking about students the three of us had helped to learn research—which included students from the first-year of college through dissertations, even some high school students and post-docs. Despite the differences between beginners and experienced researchers, we believed that their challenges are pretty much the same. But in drafting the first edition, we imagined the book would be used mostly for first- or second-year undergraduates. We hoped it would be useful for more experienced students, but we didn't expect them to buy many copies. So we were surprised when reviewers of the first manuscript asked for permission to share it with their grad students. As it turned out, the first edition spoke to the full range of students, , from advanced high school students right through graduate students. Most gratifying have been the thanks from teachers who ordered the book for their students, only to find that it helped improve their own research. We even heard from faculty who reported that after reading Craft, they rewrote manuscripts that had been rejected by main-line scholarly journals and had them accepted.

Question: How has the emergence of the Internet affected how research is done?

Answer: When we wrote the first edition, online research was neither as easy nor as common as it is now. In fact, it was little more than a crapshoot. You were unlikely to find much, and couldn't trust what you did find. So, while we offered some advice about using the Internet carefully, our main advice was to stick to libraries. Today, online research is easy; it's the first—and often the only—place students go for sources. But it's still a crapshoot. You'll find more reliable sources than ever before, but you'll still find worthless ones, and a lot more of them. So more than ever students need to know how to tell the difference. But they still have to know how to use the library, if not as their first resort, at least as a necessary stop. The three of us almost never do research anymore without including online work, but we also never do research without consulting the library. Since libraries have become a chief gateway for most of the reliable sources on the Internet, we can anticipate a time when we'll drop the "online" from "online research." But in the meantime, all teachers can do is help students to manage a changing situation.

Question: In The Craft of Research, you discuss the importance of developing a relationship between reader and researcher. Can you explain what that means?

Answer: Perhaps the most common image is of the "pure" researcher who simply pursues truth for its own sake. In this scenario, the moment of triumph is that "Eureka!" when the researcher finally sees the truth for him- or herself. If the researcher writes up that research, it comes as something of an afterthought. In contrast, our "rhetorical" picture of research is of someone who plans, does, and reports the research while keeping in mind a research community, those who will—or ought to—care about the results of the research. That doesn't mean that you can't do the research that you most care about for your own reasons. But it does mean that you have to enlist the cooperation of your research community by asking yourself the questions they are sure to ask. Not just your report but your research itself will be better if you ask at every point: What will my most insightful readers be likely to ask at this point? Still more important than anticipating those substantive questions, you have to imagine them asking these two rhetorical ones, Why should I trust you? and So what? Why does this research matter?

Question: In the book, you write at length about the way that researchers actually work, and how becoming aware of this process can help them improve their research. What do researchers discover about the process of research?

Answer: Some fields are more aware of their processes than others. In fields that collect empirical data, researchers are usually keenly aware of how their own processes compare to others in the field. In other fields, research processes are more individualized. We doubt that all fields need to be as concerned about methodology as are, say, the empirical social sciences. But we do think all researchers should understand their own processes and those of their peers.

No matter the field, too many researchers don't realize that at some point, they have to share their work with others who are less engaged with their topic and who are as a matter of intellectual principle inclined to question everything. When we ask for ourselves the tough questions that we know others will ask, we become more cautious and self-critical, and so make our case stronger and more acceptable.

Question: What was the writing process like for the three of you?

Answer: We began with lots of conversation, some arguments, and three or four hypothetical plans. Once we agreed on the general goals and tone of the book and its rough organization, we divided the chapters up and began drafting. Then we rotated drafts, each one doing whatever he thought best—adding, deleting, reorganizing, whatever. At several points, we reorganized the whole, adding some chapters, cutting or redistributing the material in others.

From the beginning we decided that the project would succeed only if we thought more about the final product than about any individual contribution and, most importantly, if we trusted one another enough to give each drafter total authority over the draft he was working on at the time. When Greg had custody of a chapter that Joe and Wayne had worked on, he was expected to make any change he thought would improve it. If he cut something Wayne thought was important, Wayne might re-insert it next time round, so that Greg could reconsider and maybe accept it. Sometimes we would discuss this or that problem, usually by e-mail but sometimes in person, but we never abandoned the "rotation principle." The drafts went round and round, steadily improving. In fact, by the end of the process, no one could quite remember who had drafted what.

Sometimes we felt a bit of competitive pressure to make a chapter better each time we touched it, but we never quarreled about it, just went on revising and revising, until finally we ran out of time and had a draft we all could accept. Sometimes the text felt almost anonymous—the voice that emerged was not that of any one of us—but it did seem to grow into a distinctive, coherent presence. The final draft inevitably lacked some points or phrases that one of us would have liked to keep, but all of us felt that it was better than what any one of us could have written alone.

Question: What do you find to be the most difficult aspects of your own research projects?

Answer: That's a tough question, because each new project tends to bring its own special challenges. Here are three of the issues that most often give us trouble. They are all versions of the Goldilocks' dilemma: not too much, not too little, but just right.

  • Correctly assessing the larger significance of a research finding. On the one hand, you need to see your work in terms of its implications for others, maybe even those in other fields. On the other, it's always tempting to overstate the significance of one's own work.
  • Evaluating data objectively. When you want your result to be the right one, it's too easy to undervalue data that cast doubt on your claim and to overvalue those that support it.
  • Following through after you have convinced yourself. The hardest part of a project can be all the work you have to do to make the strongest case possible even after you are sure you are right. Even though you try to test your result as skeptically as you can, readers almost always need more than you do to be convinced. You can't go on forever, but you often have to do more than you want.

Question: If you could give just one piece of advice to beginning researchers, what would it be?

Answer: We can't agree on just one, but here are two:

  • Find the question that you genuinely want to answer, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
  • Don't fall in love with your first answer; always hope that you'll find a better one.


Copyright notice: ©2008 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Wayne C.Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams
The Craft of Research, Third edition
©2008, 336 pages, 24 line drawings, 7 tables
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 9780226065656
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 9780226065663P

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Craft of Research, Third edition.

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