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Choosing a Topic

Learn how to select and refine a topic, translate your topic into searchable keywords, and get started with your research.

Choosing a Topic from Scratch

Having the freedom to select ANY TOPIC you want for your paper or presentation is exciting as well as a bit terrifying. (It is, after all, a big worldNASA photo of a spiral galaxy out there with a lot of topics to choose from). So how should you decide on a topic?

  1. Pick something you are interested in, whether it is Egyptian art, or the bob hairstyle, or slasher movies. Start by jotting down a list of topics that you would like to know more about.
  2. Not interested in anything? BROWSE ISSUES in Opposing Viewpoints to get a list of ideas. 
  3. Do some preliminary research on the topics you've selected in either a reference book, like those included in the Gale Virtual Reference set, or an article database. 
  • Want background information on your topic? Search or browse Gale Ebooks (formerly called Gale Virtual Reference Library).

Photo of GVRL database logo

Skim over the titles and abstracts of some of your results. How has your topic been studied? Are any of these avenues particularly interesting? Have you noticed any tensions or disagreements among authors writing about your topic?

These questions should help you realize which aspects of your broader topic you are most interested in; this issue can then become your working topic.

Once you have a topic in mind, check out the "Refining your Topic" page of this guide for help structuring your topic and coming up with keywords.

Photo credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech, The spiral galaxy M33, Triangulum Galaxy [Public Domain] via



Finding an Interesting Angle on an Assigned Topic

Did your professor give you an assignment with a set, very specific topic? (Be sure you have read your assignment carefully, and understand what you are being asked to do, BEFORE you select a topic and begin researching.)

Painting of William Shakespeare

For example: Explore how Shakespeare creates vivid characters in Othello and discuss how these characters resonate with modern audiences.

Maybe this topic does not sound very interesting to you - or maybe it does - but what I want you take away from this is that YOU have the power to select what ANGLE you take on the topic you have been assigned. And you can select an angle that truly interests you.

Here are some questions I might think about in trying to choose an angle for my Shakespeare paper:

  • Which character in Othello did I find the most compelling and why? Whether I loved Iago's evil machinations or hated them, I would have to admit he is a very compelling character. I could explore how Shakespeare creates believable, manipulative evil in Iago and discuss how this translates into today's representations of crime and criminality.
  • Which relationship in the play seemed to be Shakespeare's main focus? Perhaps I was struck by the relationship between Othello and Iago. I could structure my paper around how Shakespeare used these characters to create a complex, multi-ethnic, male relationship.

Do you see what we are doing here? We are thinking about our own personal feelings and reactions to the topic we have been assigned. When you hit on an angle that sparks your interest - whether in terms of affection or ire - that is a topic you relate to and would enjoy researching. 

Art Credit: Unknown, The Flower portrait of William Shakespeare, c. 1820-40 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.