Narrowing a Topic

The procedures surrounding selecting a topic will vary by instructor and by discipline. Before you narrow your topic, it is important that you understand the assignment. If you are you are unsure about the assignment, you may find yourself even more confused when trying to choose a topic.

Two key steps to help you understand your assignment:

  1. Read the assignment sheet carefully to ascertain the teacher’s expectations. Is there an explicit list of topics, or are you expected to narrow to a topic on your own? Are you to work with a specific theory of course material as you write the paper? Are you to work with a specific theory or course material as you write the paper?
  2. Contact your teacher if you do not understand any components of the assignment.

If your instructor hands out a topic list and expects you to operate within those boundaries, keep in mind that those lists are often broad topics, not thesis statements. Other teachers prefer to be intentionally vague in order to give you the freedom to narrow to an area of your interest. That means that you will have to search for a topic that you are willing to work with for a considerable amount of time.

Strategies for a topic search:

  • Work from the general to the specific.
  • Consider the word count or page requirements to determine how narrow your topic needs to be. The shorter the paper, the narrower the topic should be. You cannot cover all aspects of online education in a three-page essay. 
  • Note in a research notebook provocative questions that arise in class lecture or discussion, topics in your textbook that appear ripe for further exploration, or issues that come up in your conversations with classmates.
  • Use prewriting strategies such as brainstorming, clustering, or free writing to generate topics. See more on these techniques in Prewriting Strategies
  • Use the on-line library catalogue to narrow to a topic quickly and see what books are available on the topic. Then, look through the library databases for articles on these topics. Reviewing the resources often helps to see what subtopics you could write about. Start on the KU Libraries page.  
  • If you do not even know where to start, perusing All Issues on the Issues and Controversies database can give you an idea of many different topics you could write about. 
  • The Internet is also a useful resource, although you must take care to evaluate Internet sources for reliability. See Evaluating Websites for more details.
  • Make an appointment with the Writing Center and brainstorm ideas with a writing consultant.

Now that you have decided on a topic, narrow your focus.

Questions to ask to narrow your focus:

  • Is this topic consistent with the assignment?
  • What is interesting about the topic?
  • What do I know about the topic?
  • What do I want to know?
  • What do I need to know?

Skim the literature to help you narrow your topic to a manageable one which meets your instructor's assignment and your interests.

As an example, if your initial topic for a 10 to 20 page paper is "Space Exploration", by the time you finish your topic search, you might have narrowed your topic to "Unmanned U.S. Space Exploration of Planets" or even to a specific planet and mission like "1997s Pathfinder Mission".