Your first step in writing a research paper is to come up with a topic. Sometimes your instructor gives you one, but often you need to choose your own meaningful topic. Although this sounds easy — it can often be one of the most challenging parts of a research paper. To provide inspiration for a topic, think of something from your everyday life.
Think about topics From your courses or a course reading, From the news, From your job or a campus group you work with, Or even from your own interests or those of your parents or friends For example, let’s say you and your friends saw a new superhero movie over the weekend. Superheroes… seems like a possible research topic, right? So, where do you start?
Preliminary research, or background research, is needed to find additional information on your topic. It’s also used to learn how others are talking about your topic – what language, or keywords, are being used to discuss it? Here are some well known places to start your background research: Library course pages or course readings Wikipedia Online encyclopedias on the Libraries website Or a general web search, like Google. Try it out with our broad topic of superheroes. Go ahead and open a new tab or browser and search.
Look up the topic in wikipedia. What did you find? How are people talking about this topic? Here’s what we found. Some popular opinion articles include The Problem with Female Superheroes. From helpless damsel to powerful heroine, but still hypersexualized.
Superheroes a ‘cultural catastrophe’ and This Is What Superheroes Would Look Like With Realistic Bodies Within those search results we find accompanying language, or keywords. As you can see, there is already a lot of chatter and opinion online around this topic. So, what’s next? It’s common to pick a topic that’s too broad at first. Your next step is to narrow the topic, with the goal of eventually asking a specific question. In other words, a research question.
There are many techniques you can use to transform a broad topic idea — like superheroes — into something more narrow and easier to answer. Let’s look at 3 of them. The first technique is called Mind Mapping. This technique is very visual and requires a blank piece of paper and pencil. Start with your big topic idea in the center – for our example, superheroes. Next, draw connections outwards.
Some examples we saw online were pop culture, female, sexualized, comics, characters, and many more. Draw more connections from each of these. Take 5 to 10 minutes to fill up your sheet of paper with connecting words related to the central topic. Here’s what our Mind Map looks like.
It’s still very messy, but if we carefully circle a few of these terms (and set aside the others, for now) we arrive at a narrower topic: female superheroes and gender stereotypes. Another technique you can use to explore a topic is sort of like detective work: get answers to the 5W’s: who what where when and why Who is concerned or cares about this topic? What are some things that influence or are influenced by the topic? Where is the topic relevant? Why is the topic important? When was or is the topic relevant?
Use your answers to these questions to narrow a broad topic into something negotiable for a research paper. The last technique we’ll cover is freeform, or pre-writing. Simply take some time and write continuously on your topic without worrying about spelling or grammar. After 10 to 15 minutes you’ll see what you know — and don’t know — about a topic.
From there narrow your scope. While not as common, sometimes a chosen topic is too narrow to begin with and needs to be broadened. For example, if we were to start with the topic Diversity of authors in graphic novels about the Marvel Universe there may be less information available to find and explore, which will make researching more difficult or impossible.
Instead, you might drop out the “authors” from your topic and build from there. Diversity in graphic novels about the Marvel Universe To review – You find ideas and language on a topic using online tools and techniques. You use techniques like mind mapping, the 5W’s, and freeform writing to narrow a large topic into subtopics. Enjoy the research! And if you have any questions, ask a librarian.