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Focusing A Research Topic - First Steps

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What is the Purpose of Your Paper?

What type of paper are you writing?  Your assignment likely has specific instructions about how you should approach your topic.  

Purdue University's Online Writing Lab gives these examples:

  •  Summarizing: Presenting the main points or essence of another text in a condensed form
  •  Arguing/Persuading: Expressing a viewpoint on an issue or topic in an effort to convince others that your viewpoint is correct
  •  Narrating: Telling a story or giving an account of events
  •  Evaluating: Examining something in order to determine its value or worth based on a set of criteria.
  •  Analyzing: Breaking a topic down into its component parts in order to examine the relationships between the parts.
  •  Responding: Writing that is in a direct dialogue with another text.
  •  Examining/Investigating: Systematically questioning a topic to discover or uncover facts that are not widely known or accepted, in a way that strives to be as neutral and objective as possible.
  •  Observing: Helping the reader see and understand a person, place, object, image or event that you have directly watched or experienced through  detailed sensory descriptions.

You may be using a combination of these results; for example, you might narrate and then analyze an event.  Make sure you understand your assignment!

Get Specific!

Ask yourself questions about your topic to define your focus as much as possible.  You can start with the five Ws and an H:

Who?  Are you writing about adults, children, adolescents?  Men, women, transgender?

Where?  If possible, focus on a particular place.  The West Coast U.S., urban areas of eastern Canada, etc.  Example:  The economic development of Ottawa’s Westboro Village

When?  What time period are you looking at?  The smaller the time period, the more narrow the focus.  You can focus on the 1920s, the 13th century, the second half of the 20th century, etc.  Example:  Cultural genocide during World War I

What?  What aspect of the topic will you research?  Psychological, ethical, political?  Are you interested in the history of your topic?  Choose one aspect to research.

Why?  Why is this topic important?  Why are you interested?

How?  How does this topic relate to you?  To your audience?

Controversial Topics

Check out these great online databases to learn about different aspects of controversial topics.