Review of The Craft of Research, by Booth, Colomb, and Williams

The Craft of Research, Third Edition. By Wayne C. Booth (deceased), Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, v-xvii + 317 pp.

The authors propose two aims for their work: “This book will help you create and execute a plan for doing your research and another for reporting it in ways that not only encourage your best thinking, but help your readers see its value” (6).  They believe that The Craft of Research differs from other research manuals in that they have attempted to synthesize the research process, pointing up the way various phases of the work influence not only each other, but especially the reader.  In some ways the argument of this volume is that researchers should work backward—considering the reader/target audience early and regularly in the research process and then pursue their work with this in mind; they write, “Central in every chapter is our advice to side with your readers, to imagine how they will judge what you have written” (xii).  The authors have arranged this volume in four main parts: “Research, Researchers, and Readers” (1-27), “Asking Questions, Finding Answers” (29-101), “Making a Claim and Supporting It” (103-170), and “Planning, Drafting, and Revising” (171-269).

In Part 1, “Research, Researchers, and Readers” (1-27), the authors use chapter 2, “Connecting with Your Reader: (Re-)Creating Yourself and Your Readers” (16-25), to argue that research only matters if it is read.  Thus, they propose that one should write his research, even formal research, in ‘story’ form.  This does not mean creating narrative literature, but recognizing that the reader has a role to play, and writing in such a way that the reader is engaged in conversation over the subject matter at hand.  Further, the relevance of this subject matter must be expressed clearly; the authors write: “When you do research, you learn something that others don’t know.  So when you report it, you must think of your reader as someone who doesn’t know it but needs to and yourself as someone who will give her reasons to want to know it.  You must imagine a relationship that goes beyond Here are some facts…” (18-19, italics original).  They note that in reporting information a researcher mush offer the reader some practical measure of help, either in attempting to solve a problem, or in understanding an issue.  By offering these, the reader naturally assumes an active, personal role in the research process.

While it is the case that throughout The Craft of Research the authors maintain their thesis that researchers must write with a view to the reader, in Part 2, “Asking Questions, Finding Answers” (29-101), they deal with the means which will help the researcher attain that end. In chapter 3, “From Topics to Questions” (35-50), the authors write: “The best way to begin working on your specific topic is not to find all the data you can on your general topic, but to formulate questions that point you to just those data that you need to answer them” (41).  One can discover these questions by considering: the history of the issue (e.g., “What have been significant points of development over the last___years?”), its structure and category within academia (e.g., “Is this issue a subset of another bigger issue? Related directly to something more well-known?”), its significance to daily life in his culture, (e.g., “How would things be different if your topic never existed, disappeared, or were put into a new context?” [42]), and finally finding points of disagreement within the issue (e.g, “If ‘x’ disagrees with ‘y’ concerning this matter, why?”).

In chapter 4, “From Questions to a Problem” (51-65), the authors provide an effective schema for the research process, urging the researcher to move through three stages of thought. First the researcher needs to choose an issue/topic for investigation, stating in a phrase: “I am studying_______” (51). Next researchers need to state their rationale: “…because I want to find out what/why/how ___________” (51). Third, researchers should set out the significance of their work, stating: “…in order to help my reader understand _________” (51). To this tripartite formula of topic-question-significance the authors add a fourth element, which they name “potential practical application” (61), stated in the phrase, “…so that readers might _________” (61). Here one finds again the emphasis of The Craft of Research, namely, that researchers must seek to engage the reader in reporting their findings; the authors write: “you create a stronger relationship with readers because you promise something in return for their interest in your report—deeper understanding of something that matters to them” (51-52).

In Part 3, “Making a Claim and Supporting It” (103-170), the authors propose that reporting one’s research is “a conversation in which you and your imagined readers cooperatively explore an issue that you both think is important to resolve” (106).  In chapter 8, “Making Claims” (120-126), the authors advocate a pragmatic approach to research when it comes to the relationship between one’s research and the reader.  They cite that the most devastating question an audience might put to a researcher is not, “Why should I believe this?” but, “Why should I care?” (126, italics original).  If the researcher’s claim is not significant enough to challenge the reader’s related views, they propose that it may need to be reworked.  The authors do not argue for boldness necessarily, but rather importance—hedged with modesty.

In chapter 9, “Assembling Reasons and Evidence” (130-138), the authors note that this conversation between researcher and reader is not just a personal relationship; rather, it is conceived only by a mutual interest in the topic under consideration, including the specific data of the research and especially its significance.  Thus the researcher needs to present the reader with “a bedrock of uncontested facts” (132); anything less will not arouse the reader’s natural skepticism, nor show that the researcher’s argument is significant enough to be taken seriously.  The authors note: “They (the readers) want evidence to be accurate, precise, sufficient, representative, and authoritative” (136).  Thus researchers need to test their argument as the reader would—and then refine claims, acknowledge shortcomings, and synthesize the argument in light of the data.

In Part 4, “Planning, Drafting, and Revising” (171-269), the authors again emphasize their thesis concerning ‘reader-oriented’ research in chapter 14, “Revising Your Organization and Argument” (203-210).  Here they propose that: “Readers do not read word by word, sentence by sentence…they want to begin with a sense of the whole, its structure, and, most important, why they should read your report in the first place…It thus makes sense to start revising your overall organization, then its parts, then the clarity of your sentences, and last, matters of spelling and punctuation” (204).

The authors titled chapter 17, “Revising Style: Telling Your Story Clearly” (249-267), showing their concern that in every phase of research the reader be kept in mind.  The authors propose that researchers can present their findings to the reader most clearly if they will use the first six to seven words of each sentence to connect the main idea/character of that sentence with what has been said in the previous sentence, and then use the final four to five words to introduce new or more complex information.  This, ‘old-to-new,’ and ‘simple-to-complex,’ format will give the reader a sense of flow and wholeness about the research report.

The argument of The Craft of Research is substantive for students learning to write and speak persuasively.  This is so because of the author’s continual emphasis on how the information reported will impact the reader/listener.