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Research Process: Step 3: Focus Topic

How to write a paper at the Davis Library and University of Rio Grande & Rio Grande Community College

Focus Your Topic

Keep it Manageable.

A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad or narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic such as "the environment" is to limit the topic. Some common ways to limit a topic are:

  • by Geographic Area

Example: What environmental issues are most important in the Southwestern United States?

  • by Culture

Example: How does the environment fit into the Navajo world view?

  • by Time Frame:

Example: What are the most prominent environmental issues of the last 10 years?

  • by Discipline

Example: How does environmental awareness effect business practices today?

  • by Population Group

Example: What are the effects of air pollution on senior citizens?

Remember that a topic may be too difficult to research if it is too:

  • Locally Confined - Topics this specific may only be covered in local newspapers and not in scholarly articles.

Example: What sources of pollution affect the Gallia County water supply?

  • Recent - If a topic is quite recent, books or journal articles may not be available, but newspaper or magazine articles may. Also, websites related to the topic may or may not be available.
  • Broadly Interdisciplinary - You could be overwhelmed with superficial information.

Example: How can the environment contribute to the culture, politics and society of the Western United States?

  • Popular - You will only find very popular articles about some topics such as sports figures and high-profile celebrities and musicians.

Putting the topic in the form of a question will help focus on what type of information you want to collect.

If you have any difficulties or questions with focusing your topic, discuss the topic with your professor, or with the library staff..

Lesser Ury (1861–1931)

Lesser Ury: Reader with magnifying glass, c. 1895

Man looking through magnifying glass.


Is Your Topic Too Broad?

If you are finding too much information, your research topic may be too B R O A D. Consider narrowing it to a more specific:

Time Civil War, Iron Age, 1920's, 18th Century
Location Europe, U.S., Denver, urban, eastern
Population age, race, gender, nationality, ethnic group, occupation
Event or Aspect government regulations related to cloning, Battle of the Bulge in WWII
Person or Group college students, Democrats, Republicans

Broad Topic: Global warming

Narrower Topic: How will climate change impact sea levels and the coastal United States?

Is Your Topic Too Narrow?

If you are finding too little information, your topic may be too NARROW, specialized, or current. Use these strategies to broaden your topic.


Generalize your topic.  If your topic is the health effects of fracking on a specific community, broaden your topic to all communities in that state or the United States.


If your topic is very current, there may not be books or journal articles available yet. Choose an alternative topic that is not so recent.
Database Choice Use other databases in your subject area or consider databases in a related subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective.
Synonyms Use a thesaurus to find synonyms for your topic. When reading background information, note the terminology that is used.
Related Explore related issues.
Expand / Remove Expand or remove: location, time period, aspect, event, population, person/group.

Example of a Narrow Topic:  Does cartoon viewing cause aggression in children under age five?

Broader:  What are the negative effects of TV on children and adolescents?