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Finding and Exploring Your Topic

Helps you determine a reasonable topic for your paper.


A bubble chart like the one below can help you brainstorm different ways that your topic can be narrowed or broadened.

Bubble Chart

Narrowing Your Topic

Sometimes a topic that seems like the right size for your paper can seem way too big after you’ve learned a little more about it.  When this happens, you need to narrow the focus of your paper.  You can do this by considering different ways to restrict your paper topic.

Some of the ways you can limit your paper topic are by:

  • Who – population or group (e.g., college students; women; Asian Americans)
  • What – discipline or focus (e.g., sociological or historical perspective)
  • Where – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns)
  • When – time period or era (19th century; Renaissance; Vietnam War)
  • Why – why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)

For example, a paper about alcohol use would be very broad.  But a paper about reasons for alcohol abuse by female college students in the United States during the 1990s might be just right.

Goldilocker: An Online Tool For Narrowing Your Topic

The University of Michigan Library Learning and Teaching Team has created an online tool to help you narrow your topic.  The Goldilocker tool can be used as a stand alone/personal exercise to articulate your topic in a much more narrow fashion.  It can also be used in conjunction with University of Michigan courses and classes outside of the university.  

Broadening Your Topic

Sometimes you will find that your topic is too narrow - there is not enough published on your topic.  When this happens, you can try to broaden your topic.  There are a couple of strategies you can try when broadening your topic.

One strategy is to choose less specific terms for your search, e.g., standardized tests instead of SATs, or performance-enhancing drugs instead of anabolic steroids.

Another strategy is to broaden your topic by changing or removing limits or filters from your topic:

  • Who - population or group (e.g., instead of college students, choose a broader section of the population)
  • What  - discipline or focus (e.g., instead of choosing a sociological perspective, look at a number of perspectives)
  • Where  - geographic location (e.g., instead of Michigan, choose United States)
  • When  - time period or era (e.g., instead of 1984, choose 1980s or 20th century)

For example, a paper about alcohol use by college students at the University of Michigan in 1984 might be too narrow of a focus.  But a paper about alcohol use by college students in the 1980s might be just right.