Narrowing the Topic

Learning Objectives

  • Describe strategies for narrowing a topic for a research paper

Types of Research Papers

Most research assignments ask you to engage in one of two approaches:

  1. Explore and evaluate (present an analysis)
  2. Persuade (present an argument)

Your professor may allow you to choose between these strategies or may ask you to use only one. If you’re not sure which type you should use, be sure to ask!

Analytic Papers

In a paper that explores and evaluates, you may present a specific analysis of a literary text, examine how a historical figure came to his or her beliefs, or analyze how changes in a particular animal’s habitat have affected its breeding patterns.

Your purpose is not to rebut another critic’s reading of that text, challenge another writer’s analysis of that historical figure’s growth, or disprove another experimenter’s theorem. Instead, your focus is on researching and presenting your own analysis of a set of materials or experiments.

Examples of Analytical Questions

  • How does Coleridge’s poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” use an extended metaphor for colonial exploration?
  • Why was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stance against the Vietnam War so controversial in the Civil Rights Movement?
  • What methods are available to governments and zoos to ensure the preservation of endangered tigers?

Argumentative Papers

In an argumentative paper, the writer takes a position on a debatable question. Here, you review the various arguments surrounding that question and present material arguing for a particular answer.

A good argument paper not only fairly and clearly presents the views of those with whom you disagree, but also points out where and how you believe those arguments are flawed.

In this paper, you need to show why your argument presents a stronger response to the question than the responses of others who might disagree with your position.

Examples of Argumentative Questions

  • Should employers be allowed to monitor the content of their employees’ email and internet browsing?
  • Should the U.S. government subsidize the development of ethanol-based biofuels?


Patience is critical to constructing and finishing a solid research paper. Give yourself time. In some cases, when you have a class project, a college research paper requires ten to fourteen weeks of work, but you may take a course requiring a research paper in a shorter time frame.

Click below to view the timeline for research papers over the course of eight weeks. Please note that some research papers are written in an even shorter time frame. If that’s the case for you, you’ll want to adjust your schedule accordingly.

Remember, even if you have a shorter time frame, you should not leave out the steps of a good process!

Narrowing the Topic

Suppose you want to write your research paper on World War II. The material written on World War II has filled whole libraries, so you obviously won’t be able to complete a research paper on all of WWII in just a few weeks or months.

First-level Narrowing

The first question to ask yourself is: “What aspect of WWII am I interested in understanding better?”

  • Strategies?
  • Weapons?
  • Major characters?
  • Specific battles?

Let’s say you want to understand more about WWII weapons. Which types of weapons were used in WWII?

Second-level Narrowing

You consult a couple of encyclopedia articles on WWII weapons and discover that the general categories of weapons at that time were tanks, artillery, and firearms.

Each of these categories includes several dozen to several hundred specific weapons.

Can you cover all of these in one paper? Sure, if you write a sentence on each one. But then you’re not really writing a research paper; you’re writing a list. You need to go deep with your analysis, not wide. In other words, you want to fully explore your topic and not treat it in a very superficial manner.

Third-level Narrowing

You continue to survey general information sources on WWII weapons. You read a little bit on each of the categories listed in the Second-Level Narrowing tab and decide that the one you are most interested in is artillery. Now what kind?

  • Surface-to-air missiles (SAMS)?
  • Machine guns?
  • Anti-aircraft guns (Flaks)?

As you continue to poke around, you learn that air defense tactics and the various models of anti-aircraft guns were extremely critical in various battles, so you decide to focus on that.

Fourth-level Narrowing

Look at your previous terminology: “critical in various battles.” Do you think you’ll be able to do a paper on the role of anti-aircraft guns in all battles of WWII? No, you won’t. So the next logical step is to look at encyclopedias and websites to determine what were some of the major battles of WWII where the use of anti-aircraft guns were critical.

You remember hearing something about “the Blitz” of London, so you look that up and decide to focus on the role of anti-aircraft guns in defending London from German aerial attacks.

Try It


Preliminary Search Tips

Even when you are early in the stages of your paper, just deciding on a topic, you’ll need to use outside sources to help you decide how to narrow your focus. At this stage, you should bookmark and save websites or sources you think will be useful later on, but the focus at this point will be gathering general information to see what jumps out to you as interesting or helpful. Below are some preliminary search tips:

  1. Start with Wikipedia as a reference, but do not use it as an official source. Look at the links and references at the bottom of the page for more ideas.
  2. Use “Ctrl+F” to find certain words within a webpage in order to jump to the sections of the article that interest you.
  3. Use Google Advanced Search to be more specific in your search. You can also use tricks to be more specific within the main Google Search Engine:
    1. Use quotation marks to narrow your search from just tanks in WWII to “Tanks in WWII” or “Tanks” in “WWII”.
    2. Find specific types of websites by adding “” or “” or “”. You can also search for specific file types like “filetype:.pdf”.
  4. Click on “Search Tools” under the search bar in Google and select “Any time” to see a list of options for time periods to help limit your search. You can find information just in the past month or year, or even for a custom range.

This first stage of gathering information is sometimes called pre-research. Watch this video to learn more:

You can view the transcript for “Doing Some Background Checks on Your Research” here (download).