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EMPOWER: Choosing Your Topic: Narrowing & Keywords

Narrow your Topic

A lot of times students start with a broad topic. However, before hitting the books, they should narrow their topic. A general topic can be narrowed, and narrowed topics can be even more specific.

General topic: Greensburg, Kansas

Narrowed topic: 2007 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas

More specific topic: rebuilding Greensburg as a "green" community after the 2007 tornado

Basically, if your topic is only a word or two, or if you have trouble creating a thesis statement, your topic is too broad and needs to be narrowed.

Use "question words" to help develop topics:

  • Where: Greensburg, Kansas
  • What: 2001 tornado
  • When: May 2007
  • Why: rebuilding
  • How: as a "green" community

Whether this is a "good" topic for your paper depends on how much information is available about it.

Narrow even More

It is also helpful to look at other aspects of a topic to generate a topic distinct and interesting enough to be researchable.

Look at a particular aspect... and see how your topic develops!
specific time period not just American quilt making, but American quilt making in the 18th century
location or region not just the history of slavery, but the history of slavery in Atlanta
specific person or group not just the civil rights movement, but the role of the NAACP in the 1960s
specific discipline or aspect (historical, political, sociological impact, etc) not just the New Deal, but the impact of Roosevelt’s New Deal on federal housing policy of the 1940s
particular genre, or even particular piece of work not just Adolf Hitler, but Hitler’s ideas as expressed in Mein Kampf
ask why the topic is important, particularly to your class’s field of study not just impressionism, but why should we consider impressionism an important artistic movement?
particular controversy not just English-American relations in the 18th century, but their dispute about fair taxes

Once you've brainstormed some fully developed topics, decide which one interests you most.

Broaden your Topic

Some students start with a very narrow topic that is hard to find information about.

If you’re having trouble finding enough information about your topic, try broadening your topic, or expanding your topic to include additional, related concepts.

For instance, if you want to research the tornado that struck Barneveld, Wisconsin in 1984, and can't find sufficient information, you may want to compare tornado recovery in towns of a similar size, or look at the economic impact of natural disasters in Wisconsin, or in the upper Midwest.

It really depends on the research that is available about your topic.

How does this topic relate to my class?

academic fieldsIt is helpful to think about how your topic is categorized in an academic field.

There are several reasons this is a useful exercise:

  • If it is difficult to find information on your topic, you will be able to easily pull in other related concepts to create a more developed research topic

  • It will help you select the best information source or database for your topic

  • It will even help you write a better paper because you will know how your topic relates to the class, your field, and the world in general.

Brainstorm Keywords

No matter where you're searching, you will need to pick out the most important keywords. These are generally nouns.


If your topic is:

What impact does the rural location of Greensburg, Kansas have on their recovery as a "green community"?

Other related words might be:

"Greensburg Kansas" "Mayor Lonnie McCollum" "Steve Hewitt, City Administrator" "rural America"
"rural communities"
"farming communities"
recovery "economic recovery" "Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Plan" "federal resources"
"private resources"
"community planning" "sustainable communities" "sustainable development" "reconstruction strategy"
"dispersed business model"
"green community" "LEED certified"
"wind farms"
"sustainable building"
"energy conservation"
"energy production"

All of these words and phrases (phrases are in quotes) would be great terms to use in a search to find information. Note that you would not know these details before doing a little research. As mentioned before, searching for background information will help get you started. Research breeds more research. The more you learn, the more questions you will have about your topic, which leads to more research.

More about searching for your topic and constructing a search is in the modules on Using the Catalog, Finding Articles, and Using the Web.