Narrowing a Topic

The procedures surrounding selecting a topic will vary by instructor and by discipline. Read the assignment sheet carefully to ascertain the teacher's expectations. Is there an explicit list of topics, or are you expected to narrow to a topic on your own? Are you to work with a specific theory or course material as you write the paper?

If your instructor hands out a topic list and expects you to operate within those boundaries, keep in mind that those lists are often broad topics, not thesis statements. Other teachers prefer to be intentionally vague in order to give you the freedom to narrow to an area of your interest. That means that you will have to search for a topic that you are willing to work with for a considerable amount of time.

Strategies for a topic search:

  • Work from the general to the specific.
  • Note in a research notebook provocative questions that arise in class lecture or discussion, topics in your textbook that appear ripe for further exploration, or issues that come up in your conversations with classmates.
  • Use prewriting strategies such as brainstorming, clustering, or free writing to generate topics.
  • Use the on-line catalogue to narrow to a topic quickly and see what books are available on the topic.
  • The Internet is also a useful resource, although you must take care to evaluate Internet sources for reliability.

Now that you have decided on a topic, narrow your focus. You can begin this process by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is this topic consistent with the assignment?
  • What is interesting about the topic?
  • What do I know about the topic?
  • What do I want to know?
  • What do I need to know?

Skim the literature to help you narrow your topic to a manageable one which meets your instructor's assignment and your interests.

As an example, if your initial topic for a 10 to 20 page paper is "Space Exploration", by the time you finish your topic search, you might have narrowed your topic to "Unmanned U.S. Space Exploration of Planets" or even to a specific planet and mission like "1997s Pathfinder Mission".

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Revised: 07/11

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