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Narrowing a Topic

Section 1.3 of the fifth edition of The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers is titled “Selecting a Topic.” It offers a few examples of how a topic that is too general, given the page / word length of an assignment, can be narrowed down. Purdue University’s “Owl” Writing Center has an excellent website devoted to Scope (narrowing and broadening a topic).

Useful Information About Narrowing Your Topic

You will probably find that it is difficult, at best, to find whole books about narrowing topics in the library’s catalog (eLibrary). Therefore, you may decide to search the web for educational institutions that have posted definitions, descriptions, and examples of the process on their webpages. Our suggestion would be for you to go to Google, the web’s most efficient search engine, and type in the following, spaces and quotation marks included:

“research paper” “narrowing a topic” site:.edu

We’ve done you the favor of finding a couple of sites that offer useful suggestions. This is a preliminary list and it will grow as time permits, so keep checking back for updates. Our suggested sites, as of September 23, 2005, are as follows:

  • The University of Wisconsin-Au Claire offers the following advice:
    Once you’ve identified a general topic you’d like to research, the next step is to turn it into a manageable question. Consider the following criteria in focusing your research topic:
  • time: am I interested in my topic for a specific time period?
  • place: am I interested in a particular geographic region?
  • people: am I interested in a particular person or group of people related to my topic?
  • event or aspect: is there a specific event or aspect of my topic on which I want to focus?

The McIntyre Library there suggests you combine these criteria to formulate your topic into a question. The resulting question may or may not be researchable. As you look for information on your research question, you may find that you need to broaden, narrow or delete one or more of the four criteria.

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