A reasonably straightforward strategy for developing a paper is to start with a good question and with the paper provide a good answer. The foundation for this strategy is the initial question.
If we start with a good question, then we have reasonably clear criteria that let us know how our paper is doing. Do we have an answer that is (1) logically coherent, (2) takes into account the arguments and the empirical findings that are known to scholars who work on related topics, and (3) is presented in a clear and convincing way? Any scholar working in the area will consider a paper good if it meets these criteria. If it also says something worthwhile that is not already known from a previously published work, then it becomes a valuable contribution. To have a workable path to these ends, we must find a good question.
How do we know if a question is good? Since any question that leads to a good paper after a reasonable effort must be good, no general answer to this question is possible. Still, we can have reasonable templates or approaches that invite the development of a good paper. Some of the most dependable question forms are as follows.
- "Why" questions that typically ask why does some social
arrangement or practice exist as it does? For example:
- Why are women's crime rates so much lower than men's?
- Why did consistent, significant gender inequality apparently arise as a result of the "agricultural revolution" in which humans first domesticated plants and animals?
- Why do the cultural expectations about sexuality differ for women and men?
- "How" questions that typically seek the mechanisms that drive a
recurring process or outcome. For example:
- How do organizational practices typically result in more men than women being promoted to high-status positions?
- How does the fear of sexual violence reinforce gender inequality?
- How does women's proportional participation in an organization or occupation affect the assessment of those women's actions?
- "What" questions typically concern significant empirical possibilities
(although they can be equivalent to a why or how question).
Usually, it is the analytical significance - meaning the value for
resolving causal questions - of empirical questions that concerns us,
not their policy or political relevance. For example,
- What are accurate estimates of women's vulnerability to sexual violence over the life cycle?
- What were the long-term effects of women's elevated employment rates during World War II in the United States?
- What are gender differences in pay by occupation and industry?
One thing to note about the sample "questions" above is that each could be the starting point for empirical research as well as being a subject for a literature review. This will usually be true for good term paper questions.
What other criteria distinguish good starting questions from less good ones? A question should not be so vague, ambiguous, or general that we cannot anticipate a good answer. A good term paper question resembles a good research question in the sense that we can imagine more than one plausible answer and that we have reason to believe that there exists enough relevant published material to allow us to develop a provisional answer.
One important point: we should always aim to discover something we do not already know. A good paper requires a lot of work over a length of time. To sustain our motivation to do the work we are best choosing a starting question that we find truly interesting and for which we would like to discover the answer. It is not usually a good idea to choose a topic because we want to "show" that something is true. If we think we already know the answer and have some commitment to it (as is common with politically motivated questions), then we find it difficult to read and interpret the relevant materials in an unbiased fashion. And we do not get to discover something that will push our thinking forward.