How to Narrow Your Topic

Example: I’m thinking of doing a paper on “fashion.” This topic could develop in many different ways.

Hint: Ask Yourself Questions About Your Topic:

  • What do you know about it? What don’t you know?
  • What aspects of your topic interest you: historical, sociological, psychological, etc.?
  • What time period do you want to cover?
  • On what geographic region do you want to focus?
  • What kind of information do you need?
    • a brief summary or a lengthy explanation?
    • periodical articles, books, essays, encyclopedia articles?
    • statistics?

Sample Topic Narrowing Chart:

General Topic:


Time span:



US; urban; big cities (not rural)

Person or group:

youth; college age

Event or Aspects:

attitudes; behavior; sociological


Narrowed Research Question:

What did American youth fashion of the 1920s say about attitudes of this generation?

How to Broaden Your Topic

Example: I’m thinking of doing a paper on “whether genetically altered soybeans are safe for consumers.”

This topic as stated is seeking to answer a question for which there may be no answer yet — more scientific and long-term research may need to be done. How can this be turned into a more manageable topic?

Hint 1: Look for parallels and opportunities for broader associations:

  • Could you examine other bioengineered foods, in addition to soybeans?
  • Could you think broadly about safety concerns and issues — what might these be?
  • Who are the key players in this controversy? Consumer activists? The FDA? Scientists?
  • What other issues are involved in this topic? Such as, how should be foods be labeled?

Hint 2: Brainstorm! (and ask a reference librarian!)

Sample Topic Broadening Chart:

Specific Topic:

Are genetically altered soybeans are safe for consumers?

Alternate focus:

bioengineered or genetically altered foods

Alternate Place:

general: US, Europe

Brainstorm Focus on: Person or Group:

consumer advocates vs FDA and scientists

Brainstorm Focus on: Event or Aspect:

labeling foods; regulations


Broadened Research Question:

What are the main issues/concerns of consumer activists in the labeling controversy over bioengineered foods?


Once you have chosen a general subject you are interested in researching, you can start to focus on a particular aspect of your topic.  Begin by linking your broad topic with a keyword.