Step 2 – Discovering and Choosing a Topic
Goal: Discovering and choosing a topic for your research.
Feelings: You may feel confused, adrift in a sea of information. You may be anxious to pick a topic and “get on with it.” Once you’ve made a choice, you’ll probably feel elated and excited – for a while, at least!
Thoughts and Actions: Follow the steps below to get an idea of things you should be thinking about and doing, and some of the strategies which will help. Note the type of information search you should be doing at this stage.
Steps for Discovering and Choosing a Topic
Your information search at this stage might be viewed as “surveying the territory.” Instead of the birds’ eye view you took at first, picture yourself piloting a helicopter, at times soaring over the landscape, then hovering for awhile over an interesting area and maybe even dipping down for a closer look.
Use the notes you’ve made and the thinking you’ve done so far to select some areas for general reading. Use the library’s reference room—encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs—to get an overview of possible topics (even if your instructor has told you that you can’t use an encyclopedia as a reference—that’s not important at this stage). Explore CD-ROM tools in your library, like newspaper and magazine indexes, searching with key words representing your topic ideas. Explore the internet by using several of the resources organized by subject. The Info Search section of this manual will help you learn how and where to find these resources.
Remember to keep your concept of topic rather broad at this stage—you can look for a focus later, after you know something about the topic. Read the article “Narrowing Your Essay Topic,” from the University of Victoria for some specific examples of broader and narrower topics.
As you read, ideas and questions may strike you – write them down,s or you’ll lose track of them. Look for issues which interest you, which arouse your curiosity or your passion. Consider the audience for your research paper: what kinds of things have been discussed in class that seemed to interest the class and the instructor? What kinds of issues were touched upon but could use further study and elaboration?
Here is advice from Purdue University on this process:
Brainstorm. Gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts, etc. as you can. Perhaps some friends can join in. Jot down everything that comes to mind, including material you are sure you will throw out. Be ready to keep adding to the list at odd moments as ideas continue to come to mind. (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/general/gl_plan2.html)
When you’ve narrowed your choices down, make a quick survey of the research resources which will be available to you on each potential topic. How much information seems to be available in your library’s catalog? If it’s a current topic, is there information in newspaper and magazine indexes and are those newspapers and magazines held by your library? Is there much authoritative information on your topic on the internet? Is the available information slanted to one side of an issue versus another? How much work will it take to get the information you need if you choose a particular topic?
The topic you choose should “fit” in several important respects: your interests and knowledge, the purpose of the assignment, the type of paper (report, issue, argument), the length of the paper. Don’t worry too much about having a broad topic at this point—in Step 3 you’ll be looking for a focus to narrow the topic down to a manageable size for research and writing. Look for topic ideas in the topic section of our Quick Tips for the Panic Stricken page or in your library. Ask the reference librarian if the library has books of suggested topics like 10,000 Ideas for Term Papers, Projects, Reports & Speeches (Lamm, 1995).
Ready to go on? This way to Step 3
A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz