Planning: Developing a Research Topic

Get Specific

When you begin an academic assignment — for instance, a research paper — you may have only a very general notion of what you would like to write about. Let's say you choose the topic "women's rights movement" for a class assignment. But the women's rights movement is far too broad a subject to cover in a short paper. Your next step must be to focus your topic so that you are able to treat adequately some aspect of it within the space that you have. Library resources can help you to complete this step.

Ask Questions

Developing research topics can be difficult. If you frame your topic incorrectly or too narrowly, you may not be able to find enough or the right kind of research materials to construct your argument. Perhaps the best way to approach a topic is in terms of questions. For instance, you could narrow the topic "women's rights movement" by asking questions that interest you, such as:

  • How did media coverage affect the women's rights movement in the 1970s?
  • What was the role of Barnard College in the women's rights movement?

You should always formulate your questions in such a way that the answer is more complex than "yes" or "no": if you find that the answer to your question is "no," you may have little to write about. Try this method:

  • Write your questions down
  • Carefully analyze the questions and select ones that require more than a yes or no answer
  • Identify the questions that interest you the most
  • Select and link questions that relate to one another
  • State the topic covered by your questions

Use the Library

Library resources are key to formulating questions and focusing your topic. By searching databases and reading articles and books about a particular topic, you can familiarize yourself with the problems and debates that surround that topic. These problems and debates can direct you toward interesting and fruitful questions. A librarian can also help direct you to relevant library resources.

Printed and online sources can also provide you with evidence that you can use to build and support your own opinion, which you will develop into the thesis of your paper. For example, if you chose to pursue one of the questions above for your assignment on women's rights, you could offer your own analysis of some aspect of the movement. Let's say that you chose the second question about the role of Barnard College. After surveying what has already been written, you could decide to argue, for instance, that the importance of Barnard College to the women's rights movement has been greatly overestimated by feminists and scholars. With this final step, you have turned a broad topic into a focused and original argument.

It's a Process

Evaluating your research process at every step will help keep you focused and limit frustration. The evaluation process is continuous. At every stage, you make choices based on critical judgments. Which question you will pursue for your topic; whether you will use one resource over another to support your argument; why you choose to present your thesis from a certain point of view.

All these strategies are subject to evaluation and you should be conscious of the process as you perform it. If, for example, you aren't progressing at any stage of the research process you should reconsider the choices you've made. Look at the questions you've asked to arrive at your topic. Perhaps you should reconsider them or change your perspective slightly.

In the same way, if you aren't finding sources that seem appropriate or that provide evidence to advance your argument, take a different approach. Try different keyword searches or ask your professor, a librarian, or a colleague for different ways to look up information on your topic. There may be a database you're not aware of or a bibliography you've overlooked. What's important to remember is that this process is dynamic; you are always asking questions, making choices and evaluating outcomes.

Additional Resources

The Writing Center at Columbia University

Craft of Research
Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams.
Chicago: University of Chicago press, c2003.
Call Number: Q180.55.M4 B66 2003

Tricks of the trade: how to think about your research while you're doing it
Howard S. Becker.
Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1998
Call Number: H91 .B38 1998

Writing with power: techniques for mastering the writing process
Peter Elbow.

New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981
Call Number: PE1408 .E39 1981

The Modern Researcher
Jacques Barzun
Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004
Butler Reference Desk, 301 Butler
R900.1 B2891

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