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Charles W. Chesnutt Library - Reference Department

LibraryReferenceIntro to Library ResearchDevelop A Research Topic

Develop A Research Topic

Generate Topic Ideas

Select a topic that interests you. You are going to be working on it for awhile so choose something interesting, with enough focus to be doable, but not so narrow that you cannot find enough information to work with.  

How do you decide what interests you?

Free write on your topic: set a time limit, 5 or 10 minutes, and write without stopping, don’t worry about editing or corrections. Write about what you know and don't know about the topic.  Begin by writing what you know then write question what you know.  How do you know this? Are sure that what you know is correct? What other possibilities exist? What questions do you have about your topic? Do more free writing on what you don't know. Read over what you have written. What ideas have emerged?  At this point you probably have a  set of questions that you can take to research sources and begin searching.

Ask questions about your topic:
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • Who was involved in it? (inventor, victim, instigator, bystander)

Brainstorm on your topic: talk to your professor, classmates, and friends.  Think about your class discussions and reading assignments; did anything spark your curiosity? Browse the Subject Guides in your subject area.

If the topic is a current event or social issue browse newspapers, general interest magazines, and online sources such as

Define Your Topic

Researching a topic that is too broad or too narrow can turn into a very frustrating experience. If your topic is too general, you will find an overwhelming amount of information and will need to focus your topic. If your topic is too specific, you will find very little information and will need to broaden it.

Focus your Research Topic:

When your professor assigns a research topic, it is often too large and general for you to cover in a standard research paper. Consider the length of the assignment and focus your research topic so that you can find the right amount of information for the length of your paper. A good research topic is broad enough to allow you to find plenty of material, but narrow enough to fit within the size and time constraints of your paper.

The following example demonstrates how to focus a general topic:

Your professor assigns a paper on…

A focused research topic would be…


Impact DNA testing has in law enforcement

Football and America

How ads portray football as an American sport

How do you go from a general topic to a focused one?

Select an aspect of the topic that will interest you and your audience.

Make the topic narrow enough that you can cover it in the assigned number of pages and timeframe.

Have a clear grasp of your professor's expectations for the assignment. If you are confused, talk to your professor.

Reference books are good places to start your research when you know little about a topic, when you need an overview of a subject, or when you want a quick summary of basic ideas. They are also useful for discovering the names of important people, and can familiarize you with the vocabulary of the field. Encyclopedia articles are often followed by carefully selected bibliographies or lists of references to other works, useful items to have as you begin looking for additional information.

You can expand or focus a topic by adding or eliminating the:

  • Time Period – year, decade, century
  • Specific Population – male, female, adolescent, adult, species, nationality
  • Geographic – county, state, region, country
Broaden a Research Topic

Sometimes a research topic is so specific that you cannot find adequate information to fulfill the requirements of the assignment.  In this case it is time to broaden your topic.  The techniques used to focus a general topic can also be used to expand a narrow topic.

Use ideas discovered while you were generating topics to add to your topic.  For example, you could compare and contrast two ideas.

Use background research, found in reference books, to find a researchable topic.

If the topic is narrowed by a factor that can be broadened, such as time period, specific population, or geography, expand the limiting factor.  Go from a state to a region or county.  Go from a few years to a decade or longer.

Select Keywords to Use as Search Terms

Step 1. Identify the keywords and central ideas of your topic and write them down.

Step 2. List synonyms or alternate terms for your original keywords.

  • If one term retrieves too much or too little information, or irrelevant material try a synonym.
  • The online catalog and databases may not recognize your original search term, but may recognize a synonym or variation on the search term.

Step 3 Refine you search terms by using controlled vocabulary.

  • Controlled vocabulary terms are standardized terms that databases or indexes use to organize information.  Controlled vocabulary terms yield very specific results. Most databases and indexes give users a way to look up their controlled vocabulary terms by using the “help” or “Search Tips”
  • Library of Congress (LC) Subject Headings are the controlled vocabulary of the library catalo
Using Search terms

Step 1. Identify keywords from original topic and research question

Step 2. Generate synonyms for keywords 

Step 3. Look up controlled vocabulary terms 

Environmental protection


Environmental policy
Environmental impact analysis Conservation of natural resources

Toxic Dumps

Waste disposal



American U.S.

United States



Urban cores
Inner cities
Land use -- urban
Capital cities

Keep Track of Sources

Have you ever found and lost an important source? To prevent sources from slipping away note the citation information for a potential source as soon as you find it.  Be consistent in how you save citations and the format you use.  Citing sources accurately and in the citation style of your paper (APA, MLA) will save you time by preparing you for the later stages of research paper writing: in-text citations and the bibliography.

Suggestions for organizing notes and citations:
  • Open a Word document at the beginning of each research session and type in citation information and other notes as you find them.
  • E-mail search results and copies of electronic journal articles to yourself.
  • Store all articles, citations, and notes related to the research paper in a single folder or envelope.
  • Always write your name on diskettes, you could even include your phone number.
  • Save more than one copy! Use your T drive and diskettes so that you have saved a copy of your hard work in more than one place.
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