Basic Writing/Investigative writing

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Introduction to Investigative Writing[edit | edit source]

Definition[edit | edit source]

Investigative writing is writing that is meant to defend a thesis while exploring various areas of a topic.

Investigative writing sets out to investigate a topic and report the findings to the reader. It is an extremely versatile form of writing that can span all kinds of topics and genres. It can be anything from a newspaper article to an entire book based on one specific research subject. Investigative writing provides a chance to help answer questions for the readers and the writer.

Well known examples[edit | edit source]

Investigative writing is the basis of some very intriguing works in many genres including books, film, television, and other media.

Investigative reporting on television programs, like 60 Minutes or 20/20, features some of the most obvious examples of investigative writing. Although viewers do not physically read the shows' scripts for themselves, the writing done to prepare for each show is investigative writing nonetheless.

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is an example of book-length investigative nonfiction. Capote investigated the murder of a family in Kansas. There have also been a few film versions, like the recent Capote.

Many documentaries on film or television are investigative as well. The documentary Super Size Me was a way for documentarian Morgan Spurlock to explore the correlation between obesity and fast food in the United States. The film sought after the answer to the question: What would happen if someone ate nothing but McDonald's for a month?

Oh, the possibilities[edit | edit source]

Many students dread the assignment of a research project or paper, but there is great potential for such an assignment to involve your own interest and still satisfy the teachers' requirements.

Every single field has the need for research and for questions to be asked. Whether you are interested in math, military, literature, history, or something you saw in the media, you can let your questions about the topic lead you to an interesting research project.

Forming Your Question[edit | edit source]

If you read the previous section, you know that investigative writing can play an important role in all fields, yet you may not be certain how to begin your own assignment. The simple way to begin is with a question or preferably many questions.

Those all important wh- words, and how![edit | edit source]

What, who, when, where, why, and how are key words that can help you get started. Your initial question may be, "What political factors would have influenced Dickens depiction of London in David Copperfield?" You could also ask when, where, why, how, or even more what questions based on that topic. The key is to ask many questions and keep an eye out for a question that could lead you to a solid thesis.

Inspiration for finding the question[edit | edit source]

It depends on how wide a variety of subjects your teacher allows, but in general, questions can come from your class reading or something you observe in your daily life. If you have the chance it is best to get your questions written down as soon as possible--a bit of a brainstorming session can be a good way to get your ideas down so you do not forget them! You could compile a list of the questions or map out your questions and ideas to see other possible links.

You do not necessarily need to know the answer to any of the questions when you begin, but the question you choose to answer should be something that you find interesting and that you could answer after a little research and reflection.

Also, try to ask open-ended questions or questions that are going to require some explanation.

SIMPLE: Who was the first president of the United States?

SIMPLE: When did George Washington serve as president of the United States?

EXPLORATORY: Why was George Washington chosen to be the first president of the United States?

Note: While all of the wh- questions probably need to be answered, "why" or "how" questions are often the best questions on which to base your entire paper.

Questions in all fields of study[edit | edit source]

What do people use that gives off the most carbon emissions? (Science: Ecology)

Who caused the Great Chicago Fire? (History)

When did blues music first start in America? (Music)

Where is gasoline sold at the cheapest price to the public? (Economics)

Why is Italy the setting for so many of Shakespeare's plays? (Literature)

How did cavemen make their cave paintings? (Art)

Research[edit | edit source]

Why Perform Research?

During research, you often discover new information.

You probably perform some type of research more often than you realize. When you make a decision to take a class for college, you might look through the college catalog to find out information on the class description. When you decide to purchase a car, you will probably want to review information related to different models. When you are assigned a paper on a specific topic in one of your classes, you will perform research to obtain as much information on the subject as possible.

Credibility[edit | edit source]

After you have obtained the necessary information through your research, you need to decide which sources of information are credible enough to use in your paper. You may have sifted through an enormous amount of data, and now it is time to put everything together--but is that article from "Reader's Digest" as credible as the one from "The Journal of the American Medical Association"? The latter information would probably be more credible for your piece than the other.

One good rule of thumb to use when deciding on credibility is to ask yourself: "Does this information come from a peer-reviewed journal or other peer-reviewed text?" Peer-reviewed simply means experts in that field of study have read the article and approved its publication. If you are investigating an article that deals with contamination in the Ozarks' ground water supply and one source is the Springfield News-letter and the other is the peer-reviewed "Scientific Journal," the journal article probably holds more credibility because it is peer-reviewed. This is not to say that the contents of the newspaper article are incorrect, but it helps your own article seem more reliable if you have researched information that is considered first-class in its field.

Also beware of information garnished from websites, blogs, forums, and other types of internet sources that are written by people with complete autonomy. Much of the information found on the internet is based on unqualified opinions or misinterpretations of facts. Information on the internet runs the risk of being highly biased and outright inaccurate.

Sources[edit | edit source]

Primary Sources[edit | edit source]

Determining if your sources are primary or secondary means determining what is first-hand information and what is merely the re-telling of that information through a third party of some type.

First, let's look at primary sources. Primary sources present first-hand knowledge about a certain topic. In other words, these sources are presented by someone who experienced something first hand. Elie Wiesel's Night and the diary of Anne Frank are both first-hand accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust. On the other hand, a play based on Anne Frank's life written by someone who read her diary and an encyclopedia article about Nazi death camps written by a historian not present at the time they existed would be considered secondary sources.

First-hand documents might include court records, original interviews, diaries giving first-hand accounts of information, journals, etc. You can also say that primary sources keep records of events as they have been described--without the use of interpretation or commentary by someone else. They can also include information gathered from data that has not been manipulated or interpreted by someone else.

Secondary Sources[edit | edit source]

Secondary sources are an analysis of the primary source through a restatement, restructuring, or re-interpretation. All subsequent material, such as interpretations or studies that are based on the primary source, are considered secondary sources. Primary sources are often used as a base for secondary sources in order to argue a point or persuade an audience towards a certain outcome or opinion. Examples of secondary sources might include encyclopedias, textbooks, dictionaries, and books and articles whose main purpose is to interpret or review work done in the field of research. Examples of primary and secondary sources:

Primary Source

Art: Original artwork, History: "The Diary of Anne Franke," Literature: An original poem, Political Science Original: "The Bill of Rights," Theatre: A taping of a live play production.

Secondary Source

Art: An article reviewing the original work, History: A Book about Jews escaping Nazi terrorism, Literature: A critique of the original poetry, Political Science: An essay on the founding fathers' work on the Bill, Theatre: An article about the author of the play.

Citation and documentation

Although citations and documentation can be confusing, it is not as complicated as one might think. The best thing to remember is: If you use a statement, piece of an article, or basically more than three consecutive words that have been written, taped, or stated by anyone other than you in your paper or article, then it needs to be placed inside quotation marks and given a parenthetical citation. However, even if you put the information into your own words, if it is someone else's idea or it is information from another source, you must use a parenthetical citation. A parenthetical citation means you include the authors name and page number in parenthesis within the text. This form may differ between the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA), and this is covered in other sections of this text, but the rules are hard-fast and set so that you do not find yourself committing plagiarism (see the next topic for more).


The definition of plagiarism is very simple: if you use information from a source other than yourself in your investigative writing, YOU MUST GIVE THE SOURCE CREDIT! There is no way around this, and not doing so is cheating, and if detected by your instructor will likely result in harsh consequences. Because of its etymology, many people think of plagiarism in terms of kidnapping the offspring of another person's mind.

In order to avoid plagiarism, you must give credit to the source whenever any of the following are used:

  1. An idea, opinion, or theory that belongs to someone else.
  2. Anything that falls beyond the realm of common knowledge, such as statistics, facts, graphs, charts, or drawings that you include in your paper but did not design or calculate yourself.
  3. Quotations that have been taken from another person's written, taped or spoken words, or any paraphrasing of these words.

In short, if you use information in your paper that you did not come up with on your own, make sure you give proper credit or you will be plagiarizing.

Types of documentation: MLA, APA, etc.

The two most popular forms of documenting sources and creating citations are outlined by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). These organizations publish manuals that provide clear instructions on how to cite sources and how to embed citations. However, keep in mind that since these are separate organizations, their rules of documentation are slightly different. The information contained in their manuals is too voluminous to include here, but you can purchase an MLA or APA style guide for use as reference, or you can visit many websites on the Internet that explain the guidelines of the MLA and APA in detail. One that I highly recommend is The OWL (The Online Writing Laboratory) at Purdue University. You can also find help on documentation at many more sites. Here are just a few you may want to check out.

Research and Documentation Online



The Style Wizard

University of Massachusetts Library

The University of California at Berkeley Library

Ways to take notes: 3x5 cards, etc.

When you are doing your investigative paper, you will almost certainly find a need to keep notes. This can be done in many ways. The simplest is to keep a notebook or journal of information and interviews that you may want to include in your paper. Another is to use note cards to organize your notes. You may also find that videotaping or use of a tape recorder can be handy tools that allow you to ask questions at any time and then transcribe the notes later. Just remember that note-taking should be performed as the investigative process is taking place. It is easy to forget or lose track of information if it is not recorded in a timely and organized fashion.

Thesis/Topic Sentence[edit | edit source]

A thesis statement is a statement that expresses the main idea of your paper. It is usually one sentence, but it can be longer if necessary. Think of a thesis statement as a topic sentence for your entire paper.

Form and place[edit | edit source]

A good thesis statement needs to establish a purpose (to analyze, to explain, to persuade, etc.) and state as clearly as possible the terms of your argument. Everything in your paper should serve to support your thesis statement.

A thesis statement is usually the last sentence of the first paragraph of a paper. However, a thesis can appear anywhere in your paper: it can be the first sentence, the very last sentence, or anywhere in between. It is uncommon in academic writing, however, to find a thesis beyond the first page of a paper. Nonetheless, some writers feel that the thesis should be presented later in the paper (such as at the end of a persuasive argument that builds up to a sort of grand finale). Still, unless you have an extremely good reason for withholding the thesis, it is a good idea to present it as soon as possible to the reader, so they understand exactly what it is you are trying to say about your topic. It is also customary to restate the main idea of your paper in the conclusion, so that your paper leaves a clear impression on the reader.

General v. specific[edit | edit source]

Naturally, you want your thesis to be very specific in the sense that it exactly states your main idea. However, how specific or general you make that idea can be very important to the outcome of the paper. A thesis that is too broad will not provide enough direction, and a thesis that is to narrow may keep you from discussing some key issues related to the topic.

Example A: Television has had a negative impact on American society.

Example B: Violent television has caused some teenagers to change the way they perceive violence in real life.

Example C: South Park has influenced some teenagers to commit violent acts.

Unless you are planning on writing a book, Example A simply covers too much territory. Example B is probably ideal for a longer research paper. Example C, on the other hand, might be too restrictive if you were aiming to write a longer paper because it only allows you to discuss one negative effect of one specific television program, but just right for a short essay. Essentially, there is no such thing as "too general" or "too specific." It is simply a matter of matching the thesis to the ideal length.

If the scope changes or your focus shifts (or even if you change your mind completely) while you are researching or writing, it is fine to change your thesis statement so it better reflects what you want to say about the topic, but you must be sure that all the information in the final draft supports the new thesis.

Examples from various disciplines[edit | edit source]

It is probably worth noting that the above examples are probably a bit too simple to be representative of actual thesis statements, but the following are examples of reasonable thesis statements one might use to address a wide variety of topics and for a variety of purposes:

1. Math/Natural Science (to explain): Although Fibonacci sequences are most often applied to mathematical contexts, the sequences play an interesting role in nature as well.

2. Art (to explain): Pablo Picasso's innovative approach to art led to a new movement, not only in art, but in music and literature as well.

3. Psychology/Criminal Justice (to persuade): It is unethical to sentence serial killers to the death penalty because they are essentially mentally ill.

4. Literature (to analyze): A different aspect of the American dream motivates each of the main characters in John Stienbeck's Of Mice and Men.

5. Agriculture (to persuade): The USDA's current procedure for detecting mad cow disease in cattle earmarked for human consumption is grossly inadequate.

6. Astronomy (to analyze): There are valid arguments on both side of the controversy regarding the recent reclassification of Pluto.

7. Business (to explain): The quantity theory of money emphasizes the positive relationship of overall prices with the quantity of money.

Form[edit | edit source]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The introduction is important because it sets the tone for the rest of the piece and gives the reader an idea about where your writing is going and what points you will make along the way. In short, your introduction is your time to ease your readers into your topic and let them know what it is you are going to tell them about it. The introduction is also important because you will give the reader your thesis, the sentence on which your entire paper will be based.

Thesis[edit | edit source]

A thesis, in its most basic form, is the topic sentence of the entire paper. It serves as the compass for what is to come within a given work. You will need a specific thesis statement because you are setting up the argument that will be supported within your paper.

Good and bad beginnings[edit | edit source]

It takes time to develop a thesis, but the thesis should be well-developed (if not completely developed) before you begin writing your paper. A fully developed thesis can help you maintain a sense of direction within your paper. It will help you to develop your main topic and remind you which points you are going to use to support the argument you are making.

A thesis by a beginning writer will usually contain a general statement such as: In Greek mythology Zeus was portrayed as a god with many human qualities.

While this is a very good topic statement which lets the reader know that you are going to be discussing, the fact that Zeus possesses “human characteristics,” it does not provide a sense of the specific direction that will guide the entire paper.

In order to give your paper more direction and the reader more of an idea of what types of “human qualities” might be discussed, you should expand your thesis into something more specific, like: In Greek mythology Zeus was portrayed as a god, however he had many human qualities such as: his creation from parents, his lust for women, his displays of anger, an ego which he did not like to have bruised, the ability to show compassion, and on occasion he was known to be disloyal.

The second thesis is more clear, indicating to the reader that Zeus was a god who had many human qualities, and that the paper will be discussing at least six of those qualities. By actually listing the human qualities of Zeus, the writer has set up an expectation for the argument which is to follow and indicated the basic organization for their paper in an easy to follow manner to which the reader can now refer.

Body/middle[edit | edit source]

The body of your paper is where you will get to support the argument that you made in your thesis, and it is the largest and most laborious part of the paper. In the body of your paper you will support your thesis by stating the main points and then supporting them with the factual evidence which you have found. Each of your main points should be clear to the reader and support your thesis argument. Your supporting evidence should also be clear and used with the correct main point in order to form a cohesive and organized essay body.

Main points[edit | edit source]

The main points of your argument will be contained in the body of your paper. There can be as few as two main points or as many as are needed to complete the argument depending on complexity of the subject, word or page limits, and the thesis itself. The main points serve as a more specific overview of the ways in which you will begin to support your thesis claim. They act as a further filter for your evidence and will keep your paper organized and comprehensive.

In the thesis statement above you already have your main points organized and set up for the reader within the thesis. You points are:

1) Zeus had parents, he did not always exist

2) Zeus is lusty and often pursues women

3) Zeus gets angry and exhibits his anger through behavior

4) Zeus has an ego

5) Zeus has the ability to show compassion

6) Zeus can be disloyal

Your job now is to discuss each of your points in more detail and use contextual evidence to support the main points.

Supporting evidence[edit | edit source]

Supporting evidence is the key to successfully making the argument set forth in your thesis. You will need to use several different sources within your supporting evidence to keep the paper from being too monotonous. Having several different sources as supporting evidence for any given point assures the reader that there are others out there who are researching the same topic as you and finding similar conclusions.

Supporting evidence can be found in a number of sources and arranged in just as many ways. For any given main point you might find a quote from a researcher, some statistics, or textual evidence which you can use as supporting evidence for your main point.

For example in the main points above you might look at some of the Greek myths and use specific incidents within a myth to support your claim that Zeus had parents. In fact, you could site an entire story as your evidence, however DO NOT place the story in your paper. Simply state briefly the idea of the story and in what book you found it, you do not need to completely retell the reader about the birth of Zeus. The fact that there is an entire myth based on his birth should be proof enough.

You will also need to find some quotes from authors who have credibility (see credibility section) and who have researched on the same subject which you are arguing. For example, in main point number 4 of the Zeus argument you will want to find quotes from psychologists or possibly myth scholars who are familiar with the idea of an ego. A quote from Sigmund Freud or supporting evidence of his studies of the id, ego, and superego, will serve as a basis for the idea that an ego is a human quality. Freud can offer some context within your argument, then you can use texts from myths to provide some further evidence of Zeus’ ego.

Other side of the argument and your argument against it[edit | edit source]

Within your argument you want to, at some point, acknowledge that there is another side to your subject. You are only arguing one side of the thesis, however there is always another way to approach the subject which you are arguing. A good writer will acknowledge the other side (or sides) of the argument and then dismiss them with his or her evidence. It is hard to do within a paper that is so strongly placed in the argument of just one side of a subject, but when acknowledgement and dismissal are executed correctly they will actually enhance the argument of the writer.

For example, if you are giving supporting evidence for the main point number 6 in the Zeus argument, you might want to acknowledge that some scholars (if in fact, you have found it to be true in your research) contend that Zeus’ “disloyalty” is not a function of his humanness, but rather a function of the way people might feel about his actions, you will want to refute that statement in your argument.

Simply acknowledge that someone has said this (give them proper credit) and then show another scholar who has argued against it. Your argument should look something like this: Professor Z of Such and Such University has written an article titled “Loyal Zeus” in which he argues that Zeus was not disloyal, but humans see his actions as disloyal, however Dr. X, argues that Zeus is in fact disloyal because….”

Thus you have successfully acknowledged and dismissed a counterpoint of your argument. However, do not try to counter all arguments against your thesis, because it will prove to be exhausting, non productive, and can possibly confuse readers as to which side you are actually arguing.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The conclusion of your paper is what ties everything together. You want the reader to see what it is you set out to do, how you proved it and what it all means to them. The reader should know, at this point, where you stand on your argument and should be winding down from reading your paper. You can let your reader know that you are ready to end the paper by using some of the following words as signposts for your conclusion: 1) In retrospect 2) In conclusion 3) As can be seen

You are letting your reader know that the end of the paper is near and that you are about to give them a quick overview of what they have just finished reading to remind them of what it is you want them to take away form the paper.

Restating of the thesis[edit | edit source]

In your conclusion you want to restate your thesis in order to remind the reader of what it is you were arguing. You can restate your thesis exactly as it is in the introduction of you may choose to alter it slightly. In any case, do not alter it so much that it becomes unrecognizable as the thesis of your paper, or the reader may lose sight of what is was that you set out to argue to begin with.

Summarizing[edit | edit source]

After you have restated your thesis you will summarize your main points briefly in order to remind your reader of the basic outline of your argument. You do not need to go into supporting evidence in your conclusion because you will have thoroughly explained it already within the body of the paper. The summarization of your paper will mentally guide the reader back through your argument so they may begin to think about their own ideas on the subject and form a conclusion of their own.

Example Assignment[edit | edit source]

Genealogy Project

You choose a family member or family event that you want to write about and learn more about the person or situation. You interview at least three of your family members about the person or event you chose. You should also try to collect any mementos or documents about your subject as additional sources. Then you report your findings into a paper in third person narrative.

The following is a similar essay on family history which won the 2005 "My Turn" contest sponsored by Newsweek Education Program: "Family Tree" by By Nami Sung of Stuyvesant High School in New York, New York.