How to Narrow the Research Topic for Your Paper

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It is typical for students to set off on a research topic only to find out that the one they've chosen is too broad. If you are lucky, you will find out before you conduct too much research, because much of the early research you carry out might be useless once you finally narrow your topic.

It is a good idea to run your initial research idea by a teacher or librarian to get an expert opinion. He or she will save you some time and give you some tips on narrowing the scope of your topic.

What Is Too Broad?

Students get tired of hearing that their chosen topic is too broad, but it is a very common problem. How do you know if your topic is too broad?

  • If you find yourself in the library staring at a entire section of books that could work as references for your topic, it is too broad! A good topic addresses a specific question or problem. You should see only four or five books on the shelf that address your specific research question (maybe fewer!).
  • If your topic can be summed up in a word or two, like smoking, school cheating, education, overweight teens, corporal punishment, Korean War, or hip-hop, it is too broad.
  • If you have trouble coming up with a thesis statement, your topic is probably too broad.​

A good research project must be narrowed down in order to be meaningful and manageable.

How to Narrow Your Topic

The best way to narrow your topic is to apply a few of the old familiar question words, like who, what, where, when, why, and how.

  • Paddling as punishment:
  • Where?: "Paddling in grade school"
  • What and where?: "Emotional effects of paddling in grade school"
  • What and who?: "Emotional effects of paddling on female children"
  • Hip-hop dancing:
  • What?: "Hip-hop as therapy"
  • What and where?: "Hip-hop as therapy in Japan"
  • What, where, and who?: "Hip-hop as therapy for delinquent youth in Japan"

Eventually, you will see that the process of narrowing your research topic actually makes your project more interesting. Already, you're one step closer to a better grade!

Another Tactic

Another good method for narrowing your focus involves brainstorming a list of terms and questions related to your broad topic. To demonstrate, let's start with a broad subject, like unhealthy behavior as an example.

Imagine that your instructor has given this subject as a writing prompt. You can make a list of somewhat-related, random nouns and see if you can ask questions to relate the two topics. This results in a narrow subject! Here is a demonstration:

  • Art
  • Cars
  • Bedbugs
  • Eyeballs
  • Sandwiches

This might look random, but your next step is to come up with a question that connects the two subjects. The answer to that question is the starting point for a thesis statement, and a brainstorming session like this can lead to great research ideas.

  • Art and unhealthy behavior:
  • Is there a specific piece of art that represents the hazards of smoking?
  • Is there a famous artist who died from an unhealthy habit?
  • Sandwiches and unhealthy behavior:
  • What happens if you eat sandwiches every day for dinner?
  • Are ice cream sandwiches really bad for us?
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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "How to Narrow the Research Topic for Your Paper." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Fleming, Grace. (2020, August 27). How to Narrow the Research Topic for Your Paper. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "How to Narrow the Research Topic for Your Paper." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).