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Research @ Reynolds Libraries

1 b. Refine a topic

How to Choose a Topic

Your first step towards a successful research endeavor is to choose a good topic.  A good topic should be:

  • Interesting to you: It should be a topic that you want to know more about and can hold your interest to the end of your research.
  • Neither too broad nor too narrow: A topic that is too broad may not be manageable within your time frame.  A topic that is too narrow may not be researchable with no or very few written documents available. 
  • Well defined & focused:  Always try to state your topic as a question or sentence, which becomes the thesis statement.  This will help you clarify your thoughts and remain focused. 

Examples:

  • Too broad: Fish
  • Too narrow: How has fishing in the James River in Richmond, VA affected the smallmouth bass population?
  • Well defined & focused: Howhas government fishing regulations in the United States affected the freshwater fish population? 

Concept Mapping: How to Start Your Term Paper Research

This video covers some online search techniques such as Boolean operators (AND & OR) as well as truncation (*). These search techniques are explained in Module 4b - Online Search Strategies in this tutorial.

Picking Your Topic IS Research

By NCSU Libraries


This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

How to Narrow Your Topic

If your topic is too broad or vague, you will find too much information and will need to narrow the focus.

Example: "I am thinking of doing a paper on health.”

Define your topic by asking the following questions:

  • When you think of this broad topic, what specific issues interest you – careers in health care, specific mental disorders or diseases, the state of health care in the United States? All of these subtopics are facets of the much broader topic – health.
  • What aspects of your topic interest you: business, history, legal, physical, psychological, social etc.?
  • What time period do you want to cover?
  • Do you want to focus on a geographic region or population?
  • What kind of information do you need? (e.g., a brief summary or a lengthy explanation; periodical articles or books; statistics)

Sample Topic Narrowing Chart: 

General topic:

health

Facets of topic:

autism, cancer, depression, diabetes, eating disorders, health care

Aspects:

business, history, legal, physical, psychological, social

Time span:

1990s; current

Place:

African Americans, Hispanics, men, women, teenagers, United States

Narrowed Research Question:

Does the media's portrayal of the ideal female body contribute to eating disorders in women?

Taken from UCLA Library

How to Broaden Your Topic

If your topic is very specific or new, it will be difficult to find enough information to write your paper.

Example: “I am thinking of doing a paper on how fishing in the James River in Richmond, VA has affected the smallmouth bass population.”

This topic as stated is seeking to answer a question for which there may be no answer yet – there may be no or very little research or studies that have been conducted on this topic. How can this be turned into a more manageable topic?

Hint: Look for parallels and opportunities for broader associations:

  • Rather than concentrate on a specific species of fish, examine more broad fish populations such as freshwater fish or saltwater fish.
  • Examine larger geographic regions that are affected such as the United States.
  • Identify the people or groups that encompass this topic such as fishermen or fish & wildlife government departments.
  • Brainstorm for other issues related to this topic such as fishery management, fishery regulations, fishing licenses, fish stocking, etc.

Sample Topic Broadening Chart: 

Specific topic:

How has fishing in the James River in Richmond, VA affected the smallmouth bass population?

Alternate Focus:

freshwater fish, saltwater fish

Alternate Place:

Southeastern United States, United States, rivers, oceans

Brainstorm Focus on Person or Group:

fishermen, fish & wildlife government departments

Brainstorm Focus on Event or Aspect:

fishery management, fishery regulations, fishing licenses, fish stocking

Broadened Research Question:

How has government fishing regulations in the United States affected the freshwater fish population?

Taken from UCLA Library

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