Understanding The 5 “W”s of Research Writing

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When you begin to consider your research project, remembering the five ‘Ws’ can help you remember the important questions to ask:

  • What?
  • Why?
  • Who?
  • Where?
  • When?

After you’ve considered these five “Ws,” you can move on to consider how you’ll collect your data.


What is the nature of your research? This question should be answered as precisely as possible. One of the most difficult parts of the early stages is being able to define your project – so much research fails because the researcher is unable to do so.


Why do you want to conduct this research? What is its purpose? Okay, your tutor or boss may have told you to do some research, but there should be another reason why you chose your particular subject. Among the possible reasons are the following:

  • You’re interested in the subject.
  • You’ve discovered a gap in the literature.
  • You want to get funding for a specific service or business, and you want to know if there is a market for what you’re proposing.
  • You’ll need to do some research to help you make a decision.
  • Whatever your reason, consider why you are conducting the research carefully because it will influence your topic, how you conduct the research, and how you report the results. You should think about the following points:
  • If you’re doing research for a university dissertation or project, does your proposed research allow you to meet the required intellectual standard? Will your research yield enough information to write a dissertation of the required length? Will your research generate a large amount of data that will be difficult to summarize into a report of the required length?
  • Have you determined whether your proposed funding body requires information to be presented in a specific format if you are conducting research for funding purposes? If this is the case, you must plan your research in such a way that it adheres to that format.

Discuss your research with as many people as possible, including tutors, fellow students, colleagues, and friends. Tell them why you chose the project and solicit their feedback. This will assist you in reflecting on and developing your own ideas.


Who will take part in your event? (In this book, people who participate in research will be referred to as participants or respondents rather than subjects, which is a term I despise.)

At this point in the research process, you don’t need to be concerned about how many participants will take part in your study because. However, you should consider the types of people with whom you will need to communicate and whether you will be able to contact them. If you must conduct your research within a specific time frame, it is pointless to select a topic that includes people who are difficult or expensive to contact. Also, keep in mind that the internet now allows you to contact people for a low cost, especially if you are a student with free internet access.


Where will you conduct your research? Thinking about this question in terms of geography will assist you in narrowing down your research topic. You must also consider your resources in terms of available budget and time. If you are a student who will not be reimbursed for travel or other out-of-pocket expenses, choose a location close to your home, college, or university. If you are a member of a community group with a limited budget, only work in areas that are within walking distance to save money on transportation.

You should also consider the location. Where will you hold interviews or focus groups if you’re going to do them? Is there a free room available at your institution, or are you going to hold them in the participants’ homes? Is it safe for you to do so? Would you be willing to do so?

If you answered ‘no’ to either of the last two questions, you may want to reconsider your research topic. In the last 20 years, I’ve only encountered one uncomfortable situation in a stranger’s home. It can happen, and you should never put yourself in danger. Consider whether your chosen topic and method might have an impact on personal safety.


When are you going to start researching? Thinking about this question will assist you in determining whether the research project you have proposed is feasible within your time constraints. It will also assist you in thinking more about your participants, when you need to contact them, and whether or not they will be available at that time. For example, if you want to go into schools and observe classroom practice, you wouldn’t do it during the summer vacation. Although it may appear obvious, I have seen some students present a well-written research proposal that, in practice, will not work because the participants will be unavailable during the proposed data collection stage.

Summarizing Your Research

After you’ve considered these five “Ws,” try to summarize your proposed project in one sentence. When you’ve finished, show it to a few people, including your boss and/or tutor, and ask if it makes sense. Do they comprehend the nature of your research? If they don’t, ask them to explain their confusion, then revise your statement and present it to them again.

I can’t emphasize how important this stage of the research process is. If you get it right now, the rest of your work should go much more smoothly. However, if you get it wrong, your problems may worsen. The following exercise will assist you in thinking more deeply about these issues.

Examine the three projects listed below to see if you can spot any potential issues. What questions would you pose to the researchers to compel them to focus on their proposed project? Do you have any suggestions for how these statements could be improved?

  • Statement 1: The purpose of this study is to learn what people think about television.
  • Statement 2: My project is to conduct research on Alzheimer’s disease in order to learn what people do when their relatives have it, what help they can get, and how nurses deal with it.
  • Statement 3: We want to find out how many local residents are interested in a summer play program for children.

Points to consider

Statement 1: The purpose of this study is to find out what people think about television. This proposed project is both broad and ambiguous. My first two questions would be, “Who are these people?” and “What television?” Then I’d ask, “What is the purpose of this research?” Who would be interested in the results? TV companies already employ market researchers to conduct extensive research into public viewing, and they have much larger budgets at their disposal. There is little point in repeating research if it cannot be improved.

However, if the researcher is interested in this topic or is taking a media studies course, there are a number of ways that this research could be made more manageable. For example, the research could concentrate on a specific type of program and/or a specific type of person, as suggested by the following examples:

  • She could decide to show an Open University (OU) programme to prospective OU students and conduct focus groups to find out what they thought about the program.
  • She could select children’s programming and learn what teachers think about its educational value.
  • She could ask businesspeople what they think of a program geared specifically toward the business community.
  • She could ask her classmates to keep a diary of their television viewing habits for a week and then interview them about it.

Within this field, there are numerous options. The researcher must decide where her interests lie and then narrow her focus on those interests.

Statement 2: My project is to conduct research on Alzheimer’s disease to learn what people do when a family member has it, what support they can get, and how nurses deal with it.

The grammar is the main issue with this statement. The topic has become more focused as the researcher has specifically mentioned the areas he wishes to investigate – nurses’ attitudes, caregivers’ experiences, and available support. His subject is immediately more manageable because he is only considering nurses or caregivers who come into contact with Alzheimer’s patients. However, he must consider whether he will consider hospitals, residential homes, or both, and in what areas. Is he also going to contact people who care for their relatives at home?

Although this project appears to be more manageable on the surface, this researcher has a significant point to consider. In the United Kingdom, all social research conducted on health-care premises is subject to the oversight of Research Ethics Committees. These committees were formed to ensure that research does not harm patients and is conducted in their best interests. Institutional Review Boards perform a similar function in the United States.

This means that the researcher would have to get his project approved by the appropriate committee before he could proceed with the research, and approval is not guaranteed. He may have to do a lot of preliminary work because he would have to submit a full and detailed proposal to the committee, only to be turned down. You would need to carefully consider whether this is the path you want to take, and if so, you would need to seek appropriate advice before proceeding.

Statement 3: We want to find out how many local residents are interested in a summer play program for children.

This project proposed by a tenants’ association appears to be straightforward and manageable, though there are still several issues that must be addressed. My first question about this topic is: do you really want to know how many local residents are interested, or do you want to know the interests of residents with children of the appropriate age who would actually use the scheme? If the latter is true, this narrows the research population and makes it more manageable.

Finding out if someone is interested in something is not the same as finding out if they would use the service. For example, I may think a play scheme is a good idea for other children because it keeps them off the streets, but not for my little darlings who are too engrossed in their computer. If I said, ‘yes, I’m interested,’ it could be misconstrued because I have no intention of using the service. However, if the goal of the research is to obtain funding for the scheme, the greater the number of people who express an interest, the better, though the tenants’ association must be careful not to produce misleading information.

I’d also find out if the tenants’ association was only concerned with how many people were interested in it and would use the play scheme. If they were going to do this research anyway, would it be a good idea to find out what kind of scheme residents want and what activities their children want? Would residents be concerned about sending their children? What are their reservations, if any? Who among the residents would want to run the scheme? Would they be willing to assist others while also supporting themselves?

Useful Links

  • www.nres.npsa.nhs.uk

This is the National Research Ethics Service’s website (NRES).On this website, you can learn more about Research Ethics Committees and how to conduct research in the UK health care system.

  • www.fda.gov

This is the US Food and Drug Administration’s website. This website provides more information and guidance about Institutional Review Boards in the United States, as well as information about conducting biomedical research with human participants.

Source: Introduction to Research Methods: 4th edition; Dr Catherine Dawson 

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About the Author: Labweeks

KEUMENI DEFFE Arthur luciano is a medical laboratory technologist, community health advocate and currently a master student in tropical medicine and infectious disease.


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