Writing Out of Your Comfort Zone: How to Sound Like an Expert on an Unfamiliar Topic

How many times have you had to research a topic outside of your area of interest? Whether you are fulfilling a distribution requirement or testing out a new field, developing sound arguments in areas that are new to you can be intimidating. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips that always help me when my I’m especially unfamiliar with my research topic:

  1. Look for a rebuttal argument: Rebuttal articles usually clarify and outline the argument you’re researching in order to argue against it. This helps clarify some of your own ideas while also giving material to complicate your own arguments. I do this early in the research process, as it helps me solidify a direction with my paper when I have a lot of general ideas. I recently used this technique while writing a paper on Evangelical
    YouTube is good for more than procrastinating! Alternative sources like videos can explain complicated material.

    environmentalism. I struggled to develop an argument until I read a text explaining why this framework would not be economically feasible. I used this rebuttal in conjunction with articles on viable economic models of Evangelical environmentalism to help me jumpstart my argument. Without the rebuttal article, I would have had a less clear understanding of the topic and would have approached my paper with a more limited perspective. 

  2. Abstracts are your best friends: While it might be tempting to jump into a scholarly article, reading a summary of the main arguments can help contextualize difficult technical terms that recur throughout the article. For example, when I was writing a research paper on parapsychology last year, I found that by returning to the abstract whenever I got lost in the confusing scientific jargon, I could better understand the researcher’s direction.

3. Read selectively: Since you’re not an expert in the topic, you get to see the arguments you read about in a thematic sense rather than in a specific, methodical one. Remember, your professor could be reading your essay in the same way. Skim to get a general sense of the argument and see how these themes align with those discussed in class. Then, from this thematic view, see how the technical terms can be explained to make your argument more specific. For a French essay, I analyzed a scientific study on linguistics. Rather than focusing on how the researcher formed his model, I read the abstract and conclusions he made throughout. I then analyzed these conclusions in relation to texts we had discussed in class.

4. Alternative sources: Surprisingly, YouTube has been incredibly helpful in delineating basic ideas during my initial research stages. For example, the first pieces of information I gleaned on Evangelical environmentalism came from an explanatory video where a pastor had outlined how Christian theology intersected with environmentalism in a way that helped me read more complicated articles on related topics. I’m also a huge fan of podcasts as another explanatory source. You’d be surprised at how many podcast episodes pop up when you type “environmentalism” in the search bar!

At its core, research asks us to delve into sources and come up with new conclusions. As we expose ourselves to unfamiliar fields, we can develop an appreciation for academics outside of our own, and maybe even find unexpected ways to inform our own research interests.

Elise Freeman, Social Sciences Correspondent