Perhaps the most difficult part of any project is getting started. The broader the range of topics in front of you, the more difficult it is to begin. The starting point, however, is one of the most critical points of your research project. Embarking down the path of research on a topic that offers little to no information will be among the most frustrating tasks you can imagine. A good topic is like a good book – always satisfying and challenging.
Finding and Clarifying Your Topic
In many classes, you’ll never need to worry about finding a topic for your research paper – it will be provided for you. Many teachers like to assign one topic to the class or to give a list of assignments that you must choose from. If your professor does not assign a topic, your first job is to find one.
You may think that the thing to do is to pick a topic that you find interesting. While you want to have interest in the topic, it is equally important to find one on which you can conduct research. While you may have always wondered about the nocturnal habits of the animals of Ndola, there is no scholarly work on the subject and you will be in trouble. So your first job is to select a broad category. Perhaps it will be dictated by the nature of the course you are taking. If not, you may consider one of the following sources.
- Personal experience
- Peer groups (network friends to discuss areas of interest)
- Topics in the news
- Your course syllabus
- Table of contents for the standard text in your course
- Bibliography for the standard text in your course
- An encyclopedia
- A librarian
Choosing a Fitting Topic
You want to find a topic that has three important characteristics:
- It is of interest to you.
- There appears to be a lot of information available on this topic.
- You have the background or expertise to understand and write about the information you’ll be reading.
While the first point – your interest in the topic – is very important, the latter two are not to be underestimated. Avoid picking difficult science topics, for example, if you have a little science background. You will be stuck reading articles that you cannot possibly comprehend, and be trying to compose a paper that is beyond your grasp. The only alternative will be to rip her to sources at treat your subject superficially, which would make for an unacceptable paper.
Narrowing Down Your Topic
Once you have chosen a broad category, you will need to narrow the scope. For this example, we will use art as the subject. You can continually narrow down your subject area; painting, Impressionism, Claude Monet are just a few ways to branch out in your topic.
As you can see, we’ve progressed from a comprehensive topic, art, to a type of art – painting – to a style of painting – Impressionism – to one artist who practiced that style painting – Claude Monet. Still, there is quite a bit of information available about Claude Monet. If you’re unfamiliar with the subject, how can you narrow down this topic even further? One of the easiest ways is to consult an encyclopedia. Most professors do not consider the encyclopedia a valid source for a legitimate academic study, but it does, however, have its use as a general introduction to a subject. For example, if you consulted the entry for art in a standard encyclopedia, at the end of the article you would find a see also or related topics entry. Your local library most certainly has a good selection of book reports and essays, so feel free to use those resources as well.
You might decide after reading the entry for art that Impressionism interests you. Look up Impressionism and the general introduction will tell you that the leading French Impressionists were Manet, Pissarro, Dégas, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir. Zip over to the M volume and look up Monet. Here, you could read a brief biography of Claude Monet and find references and to other sources written by the artist.
This process is the first step in narrowing down your topic. But now, you need to narrow it down even more. The first thing to consider is the length of your assignment. Do you need to write a three-page paper or a twenty-page paper? Even if you were going to write a biographical sketch of Monet, you’d probably need to concentrate on a specific part of his life. This greater clarification will usually come from reading more into this subject.