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Organizing Academic Research Papers: Narrowing a Topic Idea

Importance of...

Whether assigned a general issue to investigate, you are given a list of problems to study, or you have to make up your own research topic, it is important that the research problem that guides your study is not too broad, otherwise, it will be very difficult to adequately address the problem in the space and time allowed. You could experience a number of problems if your topic is too broad, including:

  • You find too many information sources and, as a consequence, it is difficult to decide what to include or exclude or what are the most important.
  • You find information that is too general and, as a consequence, it is difficult to develop a clear framework for understanding the research problem and the methods needed to analyze it.
  • You find information that covers a wide variety of concepts or ideas that can't be integrated into one paper and, as a consequence, you easily trail off into unnecessary tangents.

Strategies for Narrowing the Research Topic

The most common challenge when beginning to write a research paper is narrowing down your topic. Even if your professor gives you a specific topic to study, it will almost never be so specific that you won’t have to narrow it down at least to some degree [besides, grading fifty papers that are all on exactly the same thing is very boring!].

A topic is too broad to be manageable when you find that you have too many different, and oftentimes conflicting and only remotely related, ideas about how to investigate the research problem. While you will want to start the writing process by considering a variety of different approaches to studying the problem, you will need to narrow the focus of your research at some point so don't attempt to do too much in one paper.

For help narrowing down a topic, choosing keywords and searching library databases, complete this tutorial: Keywords and Databases.

Here are some strategies to help focus your topic into something more manageable:

  • Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of it [e.g., rather than studying the role of food in Eastern religious rituals; study the role of food in Hindu ceremonies].
  • Components -- determine if your initial variables or unit of analyses can be broken into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely [e.g., a study of tobacco use among adolescents can focus on just chewing tobacco rather than all forms of usage or, rather than adolescents in general, focus on female adolescents of a certain age who smoke].
  • Place -- the smaller the area of analysis, the more narrow the focus [e.g., rather than study trade relations in West Africa, study trade relations between Niger and Cameroon].
  • Relationship -- how do two or more different perspectives or variables relate to one another? [e.g., cause/effect, compare/contrast, group/individual, male/female, contemporary/historical, etc.].
  • Time -- the shorter the time period, the more narrow the focus.
  • Type -- focus your topic in terms of a specific type or class of people, places, or things [e.g., a study of traffic patterns near schools can focus only on SUVs, or just student drivers, or just the timing of stoplights in the area].
  • Combination -- use two or more of the above strategies to focus your topic very narrowly.

NOTE: Apply one of the above first to determine if that gives you a manageable study; combining multiple strategies risks creating the opposite problem--your topic becomes too narrowly defined.


Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Narrowing a Topic. Writing Center. University of Kansas; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University.