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How to Write a Research Paper: Developing a Research Focus

Step by step description of how to write a research paper

Developing a Research Question

Developing a Strong Research Topic

Steps for Developing Your Research Focus

The ability to develop a good research topic is an important skill. An instructor may assign you a specific topic, but most often instructors require you to select your own topic of interest. When deciding on a topic, there are a few things you will need to do:

  • Brainstorm for ideas.
  • Choose a topic that will enable you to read and understand the articles and books you find.
  • Ensure that the topic is manageable and that material is available.
  • Make a list of key words.
  • Be flexible. You may have to broaden or narrow your topic to fit your assignment or the sources you find.

Selecting a good topic may not be easy. It must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting, yet broad enough to find adequate information. Before selecting your final topic, make sure you know what your final project should look like. Each class or instructor will likely require a different format or style of research project.

Steps for Developing Your Research Focus

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1. Brainstorming for a Topic

Choose a topic that interests you. Use the following questions to help generate topic ideas.

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • Did you read or see a news story recently that has piqued your interest or made you angry or anxious?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem, or interest that you would like to know more about?
  • Is there an aspect of a class that you are interested in learning more about?

Write down any key words or concepts that may be of interest to you. These terms can be helpful in your searching and used to form a more focused research topic.

Be aware of overused ideas when deciding a topic. You may wish to avoid topics such as abortion, gun control, teen pregnancy, or suicide unless you feel you have a unique approach to the topic. Ask the instructor for ideas if you feel you are stuck or need additional guidance.

2. Read General Background Information

Read a general encyclopedia article on the top two or three topics you are considering.

Reading a broad summary enables you to get an overview of the topic and see how your idea relates to broader, narrower, and related issues. It also provides a great source for finding words commonly used to describe the topic. These keywords may be very useful to your research later.

If you can't find an article on your topic, try using broader terms and ask for help from a librarian.

The databases here is a good start to find general information. The library's print reference collection can also be useful and is located on the main floor of the library.

3. Focus Your Topic

Keep it manageable and be flexible. If you start doing more research and not finding enough sources that support your thesis, you may need to adjust your topic.

A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad or narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic such as "the environment" is to limit your topic. 

Some common ways to limit a topic are by:

  • geographic area
  • culture
  • time frame:
  • discipline
  • population group

Remember that a topic may be too difficult to research if it is too:

  • locally confined - Topics this specific may only be covered in local newspapers and not in scholarly articles.
  • recent - If a topic is quite recent, books or journal articles may not be available, but newspaper or magazine articles may. Also, websites related to the topic may or may not be available.
  • broadly interdisciplinary - You could be overwhelmed with superficial information.
  • popular - You will only find very popular articles about some topics such as sports figures and high-profile celebrities and musicians.

Putting your topic in the form of a question will help you focus on what type of information you want to collect.

If you have any difficulties or questions with focusing your topic, discuss the topic with your instructor or with a librarian.

Tips for Choosing a Topic

Can't think of a topic to research?

Interest: Choose a topic of interest to you and your reader(s); a boring topic translates into a boring paper.

Knowledge: You can be interested in a topic without knowing much about it at the beginning, but it's a good idea to learn a little about it before you begin your research. Read about the issue in a good encyclopedia or a short article to learn more, then go at it in depth. The research process mines new knowledge – you’ll learn as you go!

Breadth of Topic: How broad is the scope of your topic? Too broad a topic is unmanageable -- for example, "The Education of Children" or "The History of Books" or "Computers in Business." A topic that is too narrow and/or trivial, such as "My Favorite Pastime," is uninteresting and extremely difficult to research.

Guidelines: Carefully follow the instructor's guidelines. If none are provided in writing, ask your professor about his or her expectations. Tell your professor what you might write about and ask for feedback and advice. This should help prevent you from selecting an inappropriate topic.