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 use...like an artist uses negative space to "carve" shapes out of a dark background...to 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.
Take a look at these four essay topics, and tell me why they won’t work as a topic for your paper:
- World War II
If you said that all of these are great subjects but they aren’t great topics because they’re too broad, you’re right.
You cannot possibly write a good essay about such a large topic in only a few pages. There’s simply too much information to include and not enough space to put it in. It’s like stuffing five pounds of potatoes into a three-pound sack. It just isn’t going to work.
Don’t know how to narrow a topic that’s too broad? Feel like you’re sinking fast and need some help ASAP?
Hang in there. I’m about to throw you a lifeline and show you how to narrow a topic and write a focused paper.
“Quicksand kitteh needs to think fast” by chwalker01, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0) /cropped and speech bubble added
How to Tell If Your Topic Is Too Broad
If your mind is racing with so many different options and angles that you don’t know where to start, chances are your topic is too broad.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you want to write about skateboarding. You have four pages to write a convincing essay about your topic, but what should you write about?
You might write about the origins of skateboarding, skateboarding at the X Games, or skateboard clothing, jargon, tricks, or culture.
See what I mean? This topic is too broad, and you cannot possibly write an effective essay that encompasses everything about skateboarding in only four pages.
You’ll need to narrow it to something more manageable. Luckily, I’m here to help. Let’s dive into how to narrow a topic and write a focused paper, shall we?
Three Strategies for How to Narrow a Topic
Not all strategies work best for all topics, so try a combination of all of these to see which works best for your topic.
Strategy #1: Be more specific
To narrow your topic, think of ways to make your topic more specific by focusing on a smaller aspect of the topic, one key component of the topic, a specific time period, or perhaps a specific location.
Here’s what I mean.
If you want to write about music, consider how you might be more specific. What type of music do you want to write about? Will you write about hip hop, jazz, country, pop, opera, or some other type?
Will you focus on music from the United States, or will you write about music from another country? Will you focus on current hits, music from the 1960s, or music from another era?
For this example, let’s focus on US pop music in recent decades. (See, the topic is already much narrower, right?)
Strategy #2: Ask journalists’ questions
Ask yourself who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Asking these questions will help you focus your ideas and help you consider new angles to your topic.
Let’s apply these to the topic of pop music in the United States.
- Who? Boy bands, female artists, one-hit wonders
- What? Hit records, major fails, highest earners
- When? Current acts, musicians of various decades
- Where? United States
- Why? Compare acts, inform readers, argue who is the best/worst
- How? How did they become so popular? How did their popularity fizzle so quickly?
As you answer these questions, you’ll notice that you still have a lot of information to sort through—and a lot of decisions to make.
Some of these decisions will be made for you by your assignment guidelines. For instance, if you have to write an argument essay, you certainly aren’t going to compare NSYNC to One Direction or tell readers how Taylor Swift rose to fame. Neither of these topics are argumentative.
Instead, you could argue that NSYNC is more talented than One Direction (or vise versa).
Strategy #3: Research
Even though research is listed third on this list, it doesn’t mean you have to research last. You might need to spend some time researching to learn more about your topic even before you figure out how to narrow a topic.
And just because you research once to narrow your topic doesn’t mean the research is over. You might need to return to your narrowed topic and research it again to learn more about that topic. (I know. It feels like a never-ending process, doesn’t it?)
As you research, look for specifics about a subject and check to see what others are writing about. You might just read something you hadn’t thought about that would make a great topic.
If, for example, you were still trying to find a way to narrow your skateboarding topic, a quick Google search might lead you to information about skateparks.
You might have to write a persuasive paper, and suddenly you’re inspired to write your paper about why your local community needs to build a skatepark.
What a great idea! See? A little research can go a long way in when you’re figuring out how to narrow a topic!
Let’s look at the pop music example again.
In this case, a little research can help you narrow the list of countless one-hit wonders to a short list of songs from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
Here are a few examples to start your list:
With a solid list of examples, you can listen to the songs again and again and start to figure out what they might have in common and why they were so popular. (Your research might also help with the analysis of what made these songs hits.)
If you need more one-hit wonders, here’s a Wikipedia list for inspiration.
Researching a more scholarly subject? Read 5 Best Resources to Help With Writing a Research Paper.
The Narrowed Topic
Once you’ve sufficiently narrowed your topic, put it all together to form the focus of your paper.
In our example, we narrowed the broad topic of music to a comparison of one-hit wonders of the 1980s–2000s and included an examination of what makes the songs popular.
Now, since you learned how to narrow a topic,you have a sense of where you’re going and what you should be writing about. Now you’re on your way to writing a focused paper.
Don’t stop there!
Before you start writing, turn your narrowed topic into an effective thesis statement.
A thesis statement about one-hit wonders might look like this:
From the 1980s through the 2000s, one-hit wonders in pop music have managed to solidify their places in music history through one key musical component: a catchy hook.
Notice how the thesis statement is specific and narrowed to explain to readers exactly the focus of your paper. (This thesis also gives you a clear focus and will make writing your paper much easier.)
Now that you know how to narrow a topic for your paper (and cannot stop singing one of those catchy, one-hit wonders–you’re welcome), you can (finally) start writing.
When you’ve finished your draft, send it our way for review.
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