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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.

Refining your Topic

Color drawing of Goldilocks asleep with the three bears standing around her.

Now that you have a topic that interests you, let's make sure the topic is a workable one. Topics that work are those that have enough information written about them for you to write your paper, but are not so large that you cannot possibly discuss the entire issue in the number of pages you have been assigned. 

Think of yourself as Goldilocks the researcher . . . You want topics that are just the right size, not those that are too large or too small.

Below are some tips you can use to "fix" a topic that is too narrow or too broad.

Concept mapping, which is discussed in the box at the bottom of this page, can also help you to fix the size of your topic and generate keywords.

Topic too large?

If you get too many results when you search, your topic may be too broad. Make your topic more specific by adding:

  • An additional keyword or concept (like global warming and wildfires)
    • Use quotes around phrases, like "global warming," when searching
  • Limit your topic to a particular time period, geographic region, and/or population
    • Example using a geographic limit: effect of global warming on residents of Los Angeles

The more keywords and limits you use the narrower your topic becomes. Narrow topics --> fewer results. 

Topic too small?

If you are finding no results, or not enough results, your topic may be too narrow. After checking to see that you are spelling your keywords correctly, try:

  • Removing quotes from your searches
  • Removing some of the keywords you are using. Less keywords = broader search.
  • Removing some of the limits you have in terms of time period, geographic region, or population.
  • Try using broader keywords for your topic or adding synonyms in with the OR connector.
    • Example: global warming and (smog OR pollution)
  • Look for multiple versions of your keywords by using the exclamation mark expander.
    • Example: pollut! looks for any word that begins with p-o-l-l-u-t and has any ending. It would find pollute, pollutes, pollution, etc.

Image credit: Goldilocks Asleep, In Pastel, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License:


Using Concept Mapping to Refine Topics & Generate Keywords

Concept maps can be drawn on paper, whiteboards, or made on a computer.

These maps help you visualize all the different angles and nuances that make up a larger topic like student success in college. Since you want a paper topic that is narrow enough to be useful, without being so tiny that you get no results, these maps can help you hone in on a specific topic.

Interested to see how all this works? Check out this great video from Douglas College Library on how concept mapping can help you refine your topic and start building keyword searches: