Narrowing & Developing

It may seem easy to choose a topic for a research paper, but it can actually be difficult sometimes. In fact, determining a good, solid research question can be one of the hardest parts of writing a strong research paper.

Here are some guidelines to help you.

If you are able to choose your topic, find a topic that interests you. If your topic is assigned, try thinking about an aspect of that topic you find most interesting. You’ll be spending a great deal of time working on this paper. Make sure that it’s about something that you really are interested in learning to understand very well.

Keep in mind that your final topic and research question won’t simply come to you by thinking about it. You need to get out there and start digging—through books, through encyclopedias, and through internet sites. Pick a general topic that attracts you, and then roll up your sleeves and start reading. The narrowed topic and research question will only come to you as you wrestle with the material related to that topic.

Now, here’s one of the keys to doing a research paper for a college course. Don’t try to write the history of everything about your topic. Instead, find one small intriguing aspect of your topic and focus on that. A good research paper is not a big, general history or overview of everything that covers a great deal of information in a very superficial manner. It’s narrowed and focused and goes deep into a limited area of a topic.

By the time you are finished researching and writing, you have become something of an expert on that very narrow topic. Let’s take an example and walk you through the process.

Narrowing Process

The example we’ll use to demonstrate a narrowing process will be World War II. Suppose you want to write your research paper on World War II.

The material written on World War II has filled whole libraries, so you obviously won’t be able to complete a research paper on all of WWII in just eight or ten weeks.

Click on the tabs below to see how you might narrow a topic like World War II.

  • The first question to ask yourself is: “What aspect of WWII am I interested in understanding better?”

    • Strategies?
    • Weapons?
    • Major characters?
    • Specific battles?

    Let’s say you want to understand more about WWII weapons. OK, what types of weapons were used in WWII?

  • You consult a couple of encyclopedia articles on WWII weapons and discover that the general categories of weapons at that time were tanks, artillery, and firearms.

    Each of these categories includes several dozen to several hundred specific weapons.

    Can you cover all of these in one paper? Sure, if you write a sentence on each one. But then you’re not really writing a research paper; you’re writing a list. You need to go deep, not wide. No one, including you, wants to read a paper that treats a great deal of material in a very superficial manner.

  • You continue to survey general information sources on WWII weapons. You read a little bit on each of the categories listed in the Second-Level Narrowing tab and decide that the one you are most interested in is artillery. OK, but what kind?

    • Surface-to-air missiles (SAMS)?
    • Machine guns?
    • Anti-aircraft guns (Flaks)?

    As you continue to poke around, you learn that air defense tactics and the various models of anti-aircraft guns were extremely critical in various battles, so you decide to focus on that.

  • Look at your previous terminology: “critical in various battles.” Do you think you’ll be able to do a paper on the role of anti-aircraft guns in all battles of WWII? No, you won’t. So the next logical step is to look at encyclopedias and websites to determine what were some of the major battles of WWII where the use of anti-aircraft guns were critical.

    You remember hearing something about “the Blitz” of London, so you look that up and decide to focus on the role of anti-aircraft guns in defending London from German planes.

Research Questions

Now that you have seen how to narrow a topic, it’s time to see how you can take your topic and develop a good research question.

Constructing a Research Question

Here are some ideas for your research question 

    • How questions: How were anti-aircraft guns used in the defense of London through the Blitz?
    • Why questions: Why were anti-aircraft guns initially limited in their ability to defend London during the Blitz?
    • What questions: What were the initial and later strategies for deploying anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz of London?

As you continue to work, you might find yourself combining some of these into a single question. For example, “What changes were made in the technology and deployment of anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz that allowed them to be used more effectively as the Blitz wore on?”

Notice that the question above allows you to go deep with a single, limited topic and master some important information in one area of weapons and those weapons used in WWII. By the time you’re finished writing this paper, you’ll be a semi-expert on the Blitz of London and the use of anti-aircraft guns by the British during that period.

Narrowing Your Topic

No matter what your topic is, you can follow the same four-level process in narrowing your topic and developing your research question.

Try following these steps once you have settled on a general topic:

    1. How many different aspects of this topic am I able to list? You may want to consult encyclopedias or web pages to get you started here if you are stuck. Write down the list.
    2. Of those aspects listed above, which am I most interested in learning more about? Write down one or two and follow steps 3 and 4 for each one. You may find that you come up with more than one interesting research question. Then you’ll need to choose!
    3. Of the aspect that most interests me, what elements of it am I able to find information about in an encyclopedia or on a web page? (Notice that you may need to repeat this step more than once to really get down to a workable limited focus.) Make a list.
    4. What relationships between these elements are suggested by combining them using what, when, where, why, or how words?

Tweaking the Research Question 

Change can be a good thing.

Remember, too, that a research question is a beginning point to writing your paper. Once you start digging more deeply into the research process and start drafting your paper, you may find that the focus of your question shifts somewhat. Maybe you thought you were going to do a Why question, but as you research, you find that the most interesting material really relates to a How question. That’s OK! You’re not absolutely committed to your original writing and focus.

Keep in mind, though, that you don’t want to go off into another direction entirely (for example, switching from a focus on the use of anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz to the process and perils of evacuating the children of London during the Blitz). Tweak, but don’t put yourself in a position where you need to start all over by changing your entire direction. You’ll find lots of interesting material related to your topic. Rather than changing direction entirely, however, save some of that intriguing but different material for a future paper that examines another aspect of your topic.

See It in Practice

In the video cast below, you’ll see how our student writer has worked to narrow her topic and develop a good research question.

This material was created by Excelsior Online Writing Lab (OWL) and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-4.0 International License. You are free to use, adapt, and/or share this material as long as you properly attribute. Please keep this information on materials you use, adapt, and/or share for attribution purposes.