Exploring Research Paper Topics: Forming the Focus

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Once you have decided on a broad research paper topic, you must form the focus of the topic, or narrow it. A common mistake in research writing is choosing too broad of a topic. To avoid this, you can work through a few steps to develop the focus within your topic:

  • Search for information
  • Take notes as you learn about your topic
  • Practice focused thinking
  • Decide on the focus

Information search to explore your research paper topic

During this step, you want to read as much as you can about your research paper topic. Check out books from the school library. Browse the relevant periodicals in the library’s reference room or through online searches. Read articles. Watch videos. This process is not so much gathering information as it is about gaining knowledge about a topic.

You want to look for more in-depth information than you would find in an encyclopedia. Expert opinions, analyses, research and author summaries are types of information that are helpful in forming the focus of your research paper topic.

Early note taking to explore your research paper topic

As you read material, take notes on the general ideas or information in the resources. A simple line or two is sufficient, but include the bibliographic information. If you need to use a source for your paper, you know where to find the information again. In addition, make sure you know what official guide under which the paper must be written, such as the MLA Guide, APA Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style, so you record the right author and publication details.

While reading and taking notes, you are looking for information to narrow your research paper topic to form a focus. Types of information you want to learn include the following:

  • Common issues
  • Problems within a topic
  • Concepts
  • Debated points
    • Areas which experts agree or disagree
    • Subtopics

Since most research papers answer some form of a question, make sure to think about (or write down) the questions you can ask for each aspect within the broader topic. In addition, if you have notes from deciding upon a general topic, revisit any questions or thoughts in your notes that might help narrow your focus.

Focused thinking to explore your research paper topic

As you read, make sure your thinking is focused. While it might be interesting to read piles of information about your research paper topic, you could go on for a long time just reading in general. This makes it important for you to stay thinking about forming a focus as you read. If you find a particular point, concept, debate or something else that stands out, think about how your topic can be focused on that idea. If focusing on it is not possible, move on, and continue reading. Forming a focus is your primary goal of the process.

Decision on the focus of your research paper topic

Once you have read a reasonable amount of material, it is time to form the focus of your research paper topic. When narrowing the focus, think about how the more detailed topic fits within the following areas:

  • The type of assignment
  • The scope of the assignment
  • The type of paper
  • The length of the paper

Review your notes, and determine which narrowed-down topic is the most viable. If you have several smaller themes that do not have enough information to write an entire paper, consider whether you can combine them to form one focus. Once the focus of your research paper topic is formed, you can start developing a strong thesis statement.