Step One: Selecting a Research Paper Topic

by Shannon Crose

Selecting a research paper topic. So, your teacher has just assigned a research paper. What do you do now? Well, if you've been given free reign, and allowed to choose a research paper topic of your own, your first step is to decide exactly what you want to write about.

Now when I say free reign, I don't mean you can write on the finer points of playing base guitar for your health class. I'm sure your teacher has placed certain restrictions on your paper, and the topics. We need to keep those restrictions in mind as we look for topics.

When thinking up topic ideas, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself.

  • Is there an ample amount of information about this research paper topic? Enough that I can use at least three different sources? Note: You want to try to avoid very recent subjects, like new medical advancements, or breakthroughs in a certain field, as there will not be enough information for an entire research topic.
  • Does the research paper topic encourage research in the number and types of sources required by the assignment? Note: Most instructors will ask you to get your information from several different types of sources like books, newspapers, magazines, and websites. They may also want a minimum number of sources.
  • Is the research paper topic something I can find solid evidence for or against, and reach a defendable conclusion based on this evidence? Note: This means that you have to try and steer clear of topics based purely on belief and opinion, such as why girls are superior to boys at kick ball, or why J.K. Rowling is the best writer ever. These are considered opinions.
  • Is the topic too broad or too narrow for the required number of pages, and the length of time I have to complete the assignment? Note: How do you judge if a topic is too broad or too narrow? Start in the library. If you can find several books on the same thing you plan to write your paper on, then chances are the topic is too broad. If, however, you have a hard time finding a few references to your topic in the library, then it might be too narrow. Ask yourself questions about your topic until you either bring it down to manageable size, or make it bigger according to your needs.

So, now you have a pretty good idea of what you want to write about. As you start your research, your topic may change slightly to fit with your research, but for now, you're on the right track.

Your aim for finding a topic is actually simple. All you need is one question, one simple yet open-ended question that will give your paper focus. For example, the question "How did the Roman Empire affect the world?" is so broad you could spend the rest of your life answering it and never be done. However, something along the lines of: "How did Roman medical practices influence modern day medicine?" or "How did Roman architecture influence modern architecture?" is much more focused and can be answered in less than 20 pages. The question you ask should sum up the point of your research paper, and its answer will become your main goal. Next you gather as much factual information as you can to help answer your question.

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