What is a Research Question?

Jen Webb has been a constant in my life of study. I first came upon her work with Tony Schirato during my BA, in their book, Reading the Visual (Schirato and Webb 2004). It was one of the books that really spoke to me and helped to shape my path through study.

In chapter two of Webb et al.’s Researching Creative Writing (2015), she discusses the importance of the ‘construction of a research question’ (Webb et al. 2015, p. 33).

During my Mlitt I didn’t give this much thought until I started writing the exegetical component.

Big mistake.

If you get time, read Brien et al.’s, The Doctoral Experience (Brien et al. 2020). Brien et al. suggests as a researcher that we examine our strengths and weaknesses (Brien et al. 2020, p. 12) and use them to our advantage. For me, my strength lies in the creative component and had I read Brien et al.’s book during my MLitt, I would have panicked a lot earlier.

I had no idea what my research question was. I sat down and wrote a short story and thought the exegetical component of the dissertation would be like the journal I wrote for each unit throughout the course.

I was wrong.

It took me until the last two weeks of my Mlitt before I knew what my research question was. It wasn’t a good look, and because of the needless stress I put myself through, I chronically suffered the imposter syndrome for several months after I, successfully, completed the course.

If I hadn’t gone through such intense distress over finding what my research question was, I admit I would not be prepared to tackle a PhD… though it didn’t feel like it at the time. So Webb et al. suggests as researches we find what we’re interested in, and discover what makes us curious about that thing (2015, p. 33). Webb goes on to talk about getting started with ‘creative practice [to] see what questions it poses’ (2015, p. 33). To begin with, this will not work for me because I now understand my strengths, my process and how I learn.

Thanks to my research I have a clear idea of what I want to research further, and therefore a series of questions I would like to answer. These questions will alter over the course of my PhD following further research into my chosen field, and will become more concise before I submit my preliminary proposal for evaluation in the coming weeks. I have widely read Urban Fantasy literature, and have a clear idea of what my creative component will entail. These things came about through the process of emergent practice.

‘Emergent practice is the approach to research that begins with creative work, and out of which a research question is expected to emerge’ (Webb et al. 2015, p. 258).

The above definition is true, though knowing the tropes and concepts used to write Urban Fantasy, by reading Urban Fantasy, has also been a part of my emergent practice, as too has re-reading my dissertation. Without these things, a clear idea for a research question, in my case, would be harder. I see the story, I don’t see the question it asks, even when it’s complete.

Some scholars insist the first step is the construction of a research question (Webb et al. 2015, p. 34), and I would have to agree, but sometimes our processes differ in how we come to learn what our research question(s) will be. The research question will always come through emergent practice, it’s just the journey to that epiphany is different for everyone. Reading Brien et al.’s The Doctoral Experience (Brien et al. 2020) helped me prepare so much, that I recognised my process, what my weaknesses and strengths were, and built upon them.

A research question is what your creative component should ask and your exegetical component attempts to answer.


Brien et al. 2020, The doctoral experience student stories from the creative arts and humanities, Palgrave Macmillan US, Cham.

Schirato, T & Webb, J 2004, Reading the visual, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Webb et al. 2015, Researching creative writing, Frontinus Ltd, Suffolk, UK.