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Choosing and Narrowing a Topic to Write About (for Research Papers)

Author: Neil Cunningham

Introduction to Choosing a Research Topic

Introduction: Research is Never a Waste of Time, But Always Make Good Use of Your Time.

It is natural to stand at the beginning of a research project and feel overwhelmed by the amount of published research that exists in databases, literature reviews, and reference pages. At the same time, each new research project brings the hope of discovering something new. Overwhelming though a project may be, starting at the foothills of a new thread of research is a great privilege, and is best approached as an opportunity to learn rather than a drudgery. As a researcher/writer, you have the chance to dive more deeply into less frequently encountered pools of knowledge.

Depending on the topic or scope of your research, it is also natural to spend many days and weeks - and in some cases months and years - searching. No matter how great or small the scope of research is, the serious researcher needs to reserve adequate time to perform a thorough survey of published articles. For an undergraduate course project, finding five or six sources might seem like plenty of material to review, but graduate-level writing projects typically involve up to 20 sources minimum.

Please note that the main point here is not to say that it is only the number of research articles matters most, but rather that having a broad spectrum of papers to choose from helps you choose your topic for at least the following two reasons: 1) a larger pool of sources provides you with a broader perspective of the topics within your scope of research and 2) along the way you will find many topics within your field that you DO NOT want to write about! So, one particularly effective way of viewing research is not finding the absolute minimum sources to "get by", but rather to find a variety of sources that you can an artist uses negative space to "carve" shapes out of a dark guide you toward topics that are more directly relevant to your topic.

The good news is that as you research you may find that some of your sources that were published in the same decade or so will cite and reference each other.

One of the joys and privileges of research is being able to follow your curiosity; if you are truly curious about your topic, and authentically driven to find out as much as you can, then even the articles you don't find interesting will be useful for a future project, and no energy will be wasted.




Source: Neil Cunningham

Steps 1, 2, and 3: Choosing a Topic

Well, you've been researching for a while now, and you are now ready to settle down on a specific topic. You can do this easily by moving through the following steps. (For the purposes of this learning packet, let say that you are writing on the subject of decomposition.)

Choosing a Specific Topic in Three Steps

1. Choose any topic or topics in the universe. - "e.g., something about organic matter"

2. Be a little more specific about your topic. - "e.g., compost and soil"

3. Be a lot more specific about your topic - "e.g., soil nutrients released by organic matter decomposition"

4. Repeat these three steps three or more times to give yourself a few examples of topics to choose from. When you have a few examples, choose the topic that you feel meets your course requirements, the needs of your intended (or imagined) audience, and/or has the most relevant source material to support it. .

Once you feel terrifically solid about the topic you have chosen, you are ready to Narrow Down Your Topic. Always remember that you can go back to research at any time of your writing process.

Source: Neil Cunningham

Steps 3, 4, and 5: Narrowing Down Your Topic

During the first three steps, you chose a topic. For some, this topic may seem like it's ready to be written about, but the level of precision required in the context of academic writing requires writer-researcher to go through a few additional steps.

In other words, many articles have already been written that describe various aspects of organic matter decomposition, so we must narrow down our chosen topic so that we can focus our research efforts on a more precise question or thesis statement.

Narrowing a Topic in Three Steps, Starting from a Topic that Was Selected Using the Three-Step Choosing a Topic Process.

1) Make one or two more words more specific.

In this case, we replaced the words "soil nutrients" with nitrogen and replaced "organic matter" with food waste to make the topic we wish to write about as precise and as specific as possible.

  • Example: "soil nutrients nitrogen released by organic matter the decomposition of food waste"

2) OK, we've added a few words to make the topic more specific. Now turn the topic into a complete sentence that actually makes a statement.

  • Example: The forms of nitrogen released by the decomposition of food waste is poorly understood.

3) Make the sentence as precise and arguable as possible.

If you compare the following example with the previous step, you might notice how the context of decomposition moves from just a generalized process of decomposition to a particular process that involves household waste. In addition, this example makes a firm statement that can be argued and supported.

  • Example: The amount and value of plant-available nitrogen released by decomposition of household food waste is not well understood because most home composters do not have the tools to measure soil nutrients.

Source: Neil Cunningham


In summary, the steps outlined in this learning packet encourage academic writers who want to increase the precision of the topics they write about to go through a process.

This learning packet has broken down the process of selecting a topic into two large steps - choosing a topic and narrowing it down.

To choose a general topic, follow the following steps:

     1) Choose a topic area. Example: beer

     2) Take you topic area and describe it more specifically. Example: beer and microorganisms

     3) Name a specific aspect of the specific topic. Example: the quality of beer and the quality of microorganisms needed    to brew it properly

To narrow down the focus of your topic, follow the following three steps:

     4) Write down additional specific about your topic. Example: brewing quality tasting beer and the health of the colonies of yeast used to brew small batches of beer properly.

     5) Turn your topic into a sentence that is a statement. Example: The quality of small batches of beer is affected by the overall health of the yeast used during fermentation.

     6) Now add "fine" focus to your statement by making a statement that can (although it does not necessarily need to) refer back to your research. Example: A survey of microbrewers suggests that beer taste is equally affected by the health of yeast used during fermentation as it is by the quality of the grains used.  


Source: Neil Cunningham

Choosing and Narrowing a Topic

This audio file describes the process of choosing and narrowing a topic that is demonstrated in this learning packet. This audio file is a supplement to the text portion of this packet, and is meant to be listened to the powerpoint slide.

Source: Neil Cunningham

Choosing a Research Topic [Overview]

This narrated slide show provides a brief overview and an example of the topic-selecting process described in this learning packet.

Source: Neil Cunningham

Learning Objectives

Subject:  Pre-Writing Strategies
Topic:  Choosing a Research Topic, Narrowing a Research Topic
Objectives:   This learning packet should review:

  • Selecting a topic for research
  • Bridging research topics with actual research
  • Generating ideas for research topics
  • Overcoming writer's block

Background Knowledge:  By this point, a student should have been exposed to basic research techniques and have a minimum of 3-5 sources to begin to write from.
New Terms:  A few terms that may be new are:

  • Thesis statement
  • Supportable topic
  • Evidence-based writing
  • Scholarly writing

A few notes:
For best results, the method described in this learning packet should be practiced several times in order to develop confidence and consistency.

Source: Neil Cunningham