Topic Organization and "The Grid"

        When ideas first come to the researcher, they are automatically organized by source. We take notes "source by source," and it's obviously important to keep information separated by source so we can cite it properly. However, in that order, the information cannot generate any insight ("NEWS") and cannot do any original work for the reader.  We all have a mental limit on how much apparently random information we can remember, usually between 7 and 9 random numbers, and fewer random facts. Nevertheless, information presented issue-by-issue in logical relationships (cause-effect, greatest to least or least to greatest, etc.) is easier to remember because it is not randomly organized. Such relationships can be "chains" of related things, each of which pulls along the next into memory like the alphabet, or "clusters" of related things that work together, like the branches of the federal government. To discover such relationships, you must free information from your sources' grasp, and re-order it to highlight those logical chains or clusters.  That reduces the number of kinds of things your reader must remember.

        To re-examine source information in search of new ideas, I recommend "The Grid." In its simplest form, it can help you discover complex relationships between several parts of the same subject which you could cluster together. You also can discover new things you need to consider.

Example 1: Vehicles and some attributes related to speed and economy (Abrams data in first two columns is unavailable because it's classified, but I faked it as well as I could--the tank's engine is popularly thought to be governor-controlled to limit its speed to about 45 mph to avoid the need for dangerous battlefield repairs.)



Hwy MPG / City MPG

Acceleration 0-60 mph

Toyota Camry CE



20 seconds

 Honda Accord LXS



12 seconds

M-1 Abrams Battle Tank


4 / 0.25


        This grid reveals the relationship between the number of cylinders in the engine and the fuel it uses in a mile. It also starts to suggest that cylinders correlate positively with faster acceleration, but throwing the tank into the mix reveals that some other factors also may be involved.

Grid Column Topics and "Best Reader" Concerns:

        For what kind of "best reader" would this grid's column topics be important or persuasive?  Who cares about horsepower, mileage, and acceleration from zero to sixty miles per hour?  If we were to change the "best reader" for this product, This grid would need a new column? What would it be, and what other relationships might that factor be involved with? Suddenly, what appeared to be a paper on the common topic of fuel economy and engine size may have turned into a more unusual paper about trade-offs between economy and comfort, or between economy and durability.  Perhaps these trade-offs were not covered by your sources (so they're original with you and NEWS!) and were not immediately obvious (so they're subtle, a typical sign of a good insight).

        If you apply the same principle to writers and their beliefs, it can help you understand critical differences between them based on fundamental attitudes.

Example 2: Authors, attitudes in works, and opinion of Transcendentalism

Name Main human problem is...? Nature is...? Is a "Transcendentalist" (Y/N)
Hawthorne Evil Dangerous & beautiful No
Emerson Folly Nurturing, a good model Yes
Melville Evil Dangerous & beautiful No
Thoreau Folly Nurturing, a good model Yes

        The grid shows there might be some relationship between the reason why Emerson and Thoreau didn't see nature as dangerous and their view of humanity as more foolish than potentially evil. Hawthorne and Melville apparently share similar beliefs about the danger of nature and the corruption of the human condition--perhaps they talked about it or exchanged letters?  How about Thoreau and Emerson?  Would it surprise you to hear that Henry David routinely had dinner at the Emersons' house and walked back to Walden Pond for the night?  You might discover in this relationship some reasons why his cabin had no lock on its door.  Where is Melville's "White Whale" or Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" in Emerson's or Thoreau's world view?  That can lead to insights about their writing's ethical assumptions.

        You also can use the grid to decide which readers would be best for your thesis, in part based on in what order they would rank its main issues. This would help you organize the order in which your paper discussed these issues, and it also can lead you to discover new ideas you can use for insight.

Example 3: By issue, comparison of features' importance-rank for three possible best readers for a paper about minivans

Issue Families with kids Young single executives Carpenters
Number of cup holders




Carrying capacity 2 5 1
Acceleration 5 1 4
Anti-lock brakes 1 3 3
Appearance 4 2 5
Dual front & side airbags 1 4 2

        Consider what this grid reveals if the product you are researching is a minivan.  Suddenly, the Product Purchase Recommendation Paper is not just about "recommending a product," but rather it's about "recommending a certain kind of product to a certain kind of user to solve a certain kind of problem. " This is a paper you can write more easily because you will know if it is doing its job for its best reader.

Two Sample "Grids" for analyzing a multiple scholars' opinions about issues relevant to solving a problem