Narrowing Down A Topic For Research Paper

A common challenge when beginning to write a research paper is determining how to narrow down your topic. Even if your professor gives you a specific topic to study, it will almost never be so specific that you won’t have to narrow it down at least to some degree [besides, grading fifty papers that are all about the exact same thing is very boring!].

A topic is too broad to be manageable when you find that you have too many different, and oftentimes conflicting or only remotely related, ideas about how to investigate the research problem. Although you will want to start the writing process by considering a variety of different approaches to studying the research problem, you will need to narrow the focus of your investigation at some point early in the writing process. This way, you don't attempt to do too much in one paper.

Here are some strategies to help narrow your topic into something more manageable:

  • Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of it [e.g., rather than studying the role of food in Eastern religious rituals, study the role of food in Hindu ceremonies, or, the role of one particular type of food among several religions].
  • Components -- determine if your initial variable or unit of analysis can be broken into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely [e.g., a study of tobacco use among adolescents can focus on just chewing tobacco rather than all forms of usage or, rather than adolescents in general, focus on female adolescents in a certain age range who choose to use tobacco].
  • Methodology -- the way in which you gather information can reduce the domain of interpretive analysis needed to address the research problem [e.g., a single case study can be designed to generate data that does not require as extensive an explanation as using multiple cases].
  • Place -- generally, the smaller the geographic unit of analysis, the more narrow the focus [e.g., rather than study trade relations in West Africa, study trade relations between Niger and Cameroon as a case study that helps to explain problems in the region].
  • Relationship -- ask yourself how do two or more different perspectives or variables relate to one another. Designing a study around the relationships between specific variables can help constrict the scope of analysis [e.g., cause/effect, compare/contrast, contemporary/historical, group/individual, male/female, opinion/reason, problem/solution].
  • Time -- the shorter the time period of the study, the more narrow the focus [e.g., study of trade relations between Niger and Cameroon during the period of 2010 - 2016].
  • Type -- focus your topic in terms of a specific type or class of people, places, or phenomena [e.g., a study of developing safer traffic patterns near schools can focus on SUVs, or just student drivers, or just the timing of traffic signals in the area].
  • Combination -- use two or more of the above strategies to focus your topic very narrowly.

NOTE: Apply one of the above strategies first to determine if that gives you a manageable research problem to investigate. You will know if the problem is manageable by reviewing the literature on this more specific problem and assessing whether prior research on the narrower topic is sufficient to move forward in your study [i.e., not too much, not too little]. Be careful, however, because combining multiple strategies risks creating the opposite problem--your problem becomes too narrowly defined and you can't locate enough research or data to support your study.


Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Narrowing a Topic. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Narrowing Topics. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Strategies for Narrowing a Topic. University Libraries. Information Skills Modules. Virginia Tech University;The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Ways to Narrow Down a Topic. Contributing Authors. Utah State OpenCourseWare.

Research can seem intimidating at first, and can be the most difficult part of an assignment. In each case, the process will be slightly different, but there are a few basic steps that can be applied to most topics. By following these simple steps, you will become a research expert equipped with the skills you need to locate articles for any paper or project. Remember, research is not a rigid process; many times it is more effective to move fluidly between steps.

Finding and Narrowing Your Topic
Research starts with a foundation of background knowledge and research on a particular topic. Use this research to identify key terms and concepts to narrow your topic and search terms. Click here for background resources and more information.

Finding Articles
Enter key terms and concepts into specific databases to find academic articles and other resources. Learn research tips and how to refine your results here.

Finding Books
Books can be an excellent source of vast amounts of information. Click to be connected to the Library Catalog or for more information on finding books and other print resources.

Evaluating Credibility
Academic papers require scholarly sources to strengthen your arguments. Find more information on evaluating an article, book, or website's credibility here.

Accessing and Storing Your Sources
Once you have found your articles and sources, save them so you don't have to search for them all over again. Learn how here!

Citing Your Sources
Citations are a vital part of any scholarly paper or presentation. Make certain to cite your references correctly by clicking here to learn more.

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