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Writing and Rhetoric: Selecting and Refining a Topic

A guide to basic library research tools for students enrolled in writing courses at Dartmouth.

Select a topic

Choosing an interesting research topic is your first challenge. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a topic that you are interested in! The research process is more enjoyable if you care about your topic.
  • Narrow your topic to something manageable.
    • If your topic is too broad, you will find too much information and not be able to focus.
    • Background reading can help you choose and limit the scope of your topic. 
  • Review the guidelines on topic selection outlined in your assignment.  Ask your professor or TA for suggestions.
  • Refer to lecture notes and required texts to refresh your knowledge of the course and assignment.
  • Talk about research ideas with a friend.  They may be able to help focus your topic by discussing issues that didn't occur to you at first.
  • Think of the who, what, when, where and why questions:
    • WHY did you choose the topic?  What interests you about it?  Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?
    • WHO are the information providers on this topic?  Who might publish information about it?  Who is affected by the topic?  Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?
    • WHAT are the major questions for this topic?  Is there a debate about the topic?  Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?
    • WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national or international level?  Are there specific places affected by the topic?
    • WHEN is/was your topic important?  Is it a current event or an historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

Narrow your topic's scope

Too much information?  Make your results list more manageable and your results more relevant. Here are some options to consider when narrowing the scope of your paper:

  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding of the high rate of failures in animal cloning.
  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.   For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.

Broaden your topic

Not finding enough information?  Think of related ideas, or read some background information first.  You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including:

  • Your topic is too specific.  Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written.  If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You have not checked enough databases for information.  Use the "Finding Books & Articles" section of this guide to find other databases that might cover the topic from a different perspective. 
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic.  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.

Content on this page adapted under a Creative Commons license from MIT Libraries.