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Step-by-Step Guide & Research Rescue: Finding and Narrowing Your Topic

This guide will help you understand how to efficiently and effectively do basic research.


THIS GUIDE WILL BE UPDATED August 2020. If you are currently using the guide, find the information valuable, or would like to continue having access to it, please send your feedback to

Picking a Topic

Before you begin searching for articles, it helps to have a topic in mind. Start broad and brainstorm. Ask yourself:

  • What am I interested in?
  • What have I heard in the news?
  • What’s something that affects me personally?

It is important to pick a topic that is relevant to you personally, not just one that you think you will be able to find a lot of information on. There is information out there on every topic (the trick is finding the right key words, and we'll address that in Finding Articles), so don't worry about being able to find articles. Remember, you're going to be spending quite a bit of time with this topic, so pick one that you're going to enjoy writing about.

Gather Background Information

Now that you've picked a topic, it's time to evaluate what you need to know about it in order to gather research. Ask yourself:

  • What are the main concepts of this topic?
  • What are the issues surrounding this topic?
  • What are some key terms that are being used to describe the topic?

Keep these questions in mind as you search for basic information on your topic. Visit the sites below to get started:


Finding/Creating a Claim

For most papers and projects, it is not enough to present lists of facts and figures. Instead, you will need to present an opinion or argument that is backed by academic literature and research. Essentially, you need to make a claim that can be argued for and against. 

One method to consider is formulating a consequence-based question, such as "What are the consequences of X on Y?" Some example questions are listed below:

  • What are the consequences of player vs. owner disputes on the NBA fan base?
  • What are the consequences of teaching young musicians only the Suzuki method on their ability to sight read?
  • What are the consequences of the Affordable Care Act on our economy? on our personal health?
  • What are the consequences of reality television shows like American Idol on our modern interpretation of the American Dream?

Where to find information:

  • Opposing Viewpoints in Context (Gale) is a great source for finding pro and con arguments on hundreds of social issues. 
  • CQ Researcher is a good source for topics in the news this week (and included an archive of past topics).
  • News sources can also provide great information on the basics of a topic and what the current issues are.

Use these sources and others to decide what stance you are going to take on your topic. Remember when picking an topic that it needs to be something people disagree about. If your opinion is something that your intended audience is naturally going to agree with unanimously, you may want to reconsider the direction you take the paper. The best papers present something new, whether it is a new argument, a new way of looking at a certain situation, new methods to address an issue, etc.  Whatever your topic might be, make it your own!

Narrowing Your Topic

Now it is time to put all of the background information you've gathered together to give you a solid foundation for your research. You may find the following table helpful in organizing your data. Keep in mind that this is NOT your thesis statement, just a tool to narrow your research. If you can fill out this table, you most likely have a narrow enough topic with enough direction for some great research.

1)  I am researching ______________________________________ (topic)

2)  because I want to find out ______________________________(issue/question)

3)  in order to ________________________________ (application - So What? - Project/Audience/Purpose driven)


   I am researching speech impairments in children (topic)
   because I want to find out if an older sibling with a speech problem effects a younger sibling (issue/question)
   in order to convince my principal the need for family therapy (application - audience).

I am researching ethanol as an alternative fuel (topic)
because I want to find out the pros and cons of its use and formulate my opinion (issue/question)
in order to persuade my readers that my position is correct (application - audience).

   I am researching ways to teach English as a second language (topic)
   because I want to find out the most effective strategies available (issue/question)
   in order to prepare me to be a better teacher (application - purpose).

I am researching autism in children (topic)
because I want to find out how best to socially interact with them (issue/question)
in order to better accomplish my service learning experience. (application - project).

   I am researching genetically modified foods (topic)
   because I want to find out if they are nutritionally better than organic foods (issue/question)
   in order to produce a brochure summarizing the issues for my Writing 150 class.(application - project).

(Adapted from:  Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G. & Williams, J. M. (2008). The Craft of Research (3rd ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 51-65.)

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