Writing process tips: How to narrow your research paper ideas

Credit: Redmarkediting1

Credit: Redmarkediting1

After exploring any number of research paper topics you eventually settle on one idea for your paper. But you’re not finished yet. Now you have to narrow your research paper ideas and find a way to focus your topic. If you fail to do this then you’ll find that your writing process quickly goes out of control. Here are a few ideas to help you streamline your research project by narrowing your topic.

Narrow your topic

Part of the research paper writing process involves finding an angle or an approach that is interesting to both you and your readers. A good way to start narrowing your focus is by asking questions with the intention of finding a specific research question for your paper. Once you have that question, your paper will consist of laying out supporting evidence, data and facts.

You can find help with your writing process on Questia. Questia offers access to millions of full-text books and articles, as well as research tools and tutorials on writing, including an activity to help “Narrow your topic.”

Let’s look at a topic that is too broad, such as, “hazards of childhood obesity.” Ask yourself what your audience already knows about childhood obesity. What concerns do they have about the subject? What about the subject impacting their everyday lives?

After examining the topic from a number of angles you can eventually arrive at an approach that focuses on a particular aspect of the subject. You could narrow this topic to something more manageable and more meaningful such as, “impact of food advertising on childhood obesity.”

A chart to help you

The folks at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) library came up with a chart to help you lay out your questions for “How to narrow or broaden your topic.”

In their example, a paper on fashion could be narrowed as follows:

  • General Topic: fashion
  • Time span: 1920s
  • Place: US; urban; big cities (not rural)
  • Person or group: youth; college age
  • Event or Aspects: sexual attitudes; behavior; sociological

By taking the broad subject of fashion and narrowing it to a specific time period, group, location and event or aspect, you’ve cut out a lot of research time. Now you can focus on looking for information on fashion that fulfills your chosen criteria.

Exploring possibilities

The library staff at the University of Arizona took the UCLA model further by adding questions to help you narrow your topic. In their step-by-step tutorial, “Narrow your topic,” they demonstrated scaling the subject of health care down to a workable research paper topic.

  • They first decided on a group to focus on. Within health care the possibilities include: Spanish speakers, librarians and elementary school children.
  • They also narrowed by place, choosing to limit their research to the Southwest.
  • Examples provided for selecting a time period included: today, 25 years in the future or since the invention of the Web.
  • Finally they selected a point of view. This could be: legal, historical, scientific or other.

By the time you’re done you’ve taken a very broad topic, health care, and you’ve narrowed it down to something more manageable, such as the University of Arizona example: legal aspects of health care for Spanish speakers in the Southwest in present day. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can more easily get the information you need to flesh out this approach.

How do you know?

How do you know when your topic is too broad or too narrow? Test your topic with “Identifying when a topic is too narrow or too broad” from Virginia Tech University Library.

According to the site, your topic is too broad when:

  • everything you have to say is too general
  • you have more information than you know what to do with

Your topic is too narrow when:

  • you can’t fill enough pages to meet the requirements of your assignment
  • you can’t find enough information on the topic

What do you do if you’re still not sure? Ask a librarian to help you find subject headings for your topic. If your topic has subject headings with lots of titles and subdivisions, the topic is too broad. Finding very few subject headings and titles indicates a topic that is too narrow.

Learn more about planning and writing a research paper on Questia, where you have access to tutorials to help you every step of the way. 

What are your best ideas for writing a research paper? Tell us in the comments below.

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