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Research Papers: Narrowing Your Topic for Your Final Draft

Nearly all high school and college students have a research paper requirement. Many college students are likely facing imminent research paper deadlines as the semester ends. Writing research papers can cause a lot of anxiety. This article will teach you how to narrow your research topic, clarify your thesis statement, and sort and organize your research to help you simplify your final editing process.

Editing for Both Quality and Quantity. One common issue is having a research paper that is either too long or too short. Narrowing and clarifying your topic will help you write a better thesis statement and help you use only your most important or interesting facts and information. A properly focused topic will help save time by helping you use more specific keywords and phrases for your Internet search. You’ll be able to collect the facts you need in no time.

Narrowing Your Topic. Many teachers or professors give students a broad research paper topic. For example, your high school Science teacher may say you can write your research paper on “anything (we’ve) covered in the class so far”. With such a broad subject you can narrow your paper topic further using “why?” questions.

“Why?” questions focus your topic to make your research more manageable. A focused topic also helps you write a clear, concise thesis statement. A clear thesis statement will help focus and guide your research process.

Here’s an example from Western Civilizations class. Imagine that your Western Civilizations teacher/ professor told you to write a research paper on any topic you’ve covered so far and you pick “ancient Egypt”. Here are two “why” questions you can ask yourself to narrow your topic along with possible answers:

1. “Why do I want to write about ancient Egypt?” A: Because I like learning about mummies and pyramids.

2. “Why would someone want to read a research paper about pyramids or mummies in ancient Egypt?” A: We didn’t study it much in class – just a couple of days – and I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Plus, I know some of my friends are interested in this, too.

Writing a Thesis Statement. Use the answers to your “why?” questions to help you clarify your topic and thesis statement. Look back at the two answers above. Now we know two things: 1.) We want to find new, interesting information on pyramids or mummies, and, 2.) “Mummies” or “pyramids” may be good keywords for our first Internet search. We can search for “ancient Egyptian mummy facts” or “ancient Egyptian pyramid fun facts”. Both of these will give us more keywords and ideas to help us narrow our topic even further.

My search for “ancient Egyptian mummy fun facts” using Google got 4,850,000 hits! Next, I skim read the first three or four paragraphs on the first three websites to find additional keywords. The third website I found – history.com - had some interesting mummy facts. I chose one of them – the fact that there were three people involved in the mummification process - to help me narrow my topic. I chose “the mummification process in ancient Egypt” as my new topic. This topic is much more focused than “mummies”!

If I need to, I can limit my topic further by restricting it to a certain period of ancient Egyptian history (ex. the Middle Kingdom) or a certain part of ancient Egypt (ex. mummies found near modern day Cairo or Luxor). With your new, narrowed topic, you can re-read your thesis statement and edit it to fit your new topic. (Thesis statements are one sentence long and tell readers the exact subject of your paper. They’re usually either the first or last sentence of your first paragraph.) In our ancient Egypt example, our thesis statement might be, “Ancient Egyptians used a complex mummification process that included religious rites and crude medical procedures to bury their dead.”

Organizing Your Facts. Use your new subject and thesis statement to sort your facts. (Hopefully) your facts are in some sort of order. (For example, you may have kept all the facts you collected from one particular book or source in the front of your notebook.) Scan your facts and only keep the ones that fit your new, focused topic and thesis statement. (Never throw them away! Instead, use the highlighter to highlight the information you’ll keep – or put a check mark next to them if they’re in a notebook.)

Using our ancient Egyptian mummification example, we’re only going to look for information about medical processes and religious rites used during the mummification process. Here are two examples from a website that came up when I did a search for “ancient Egyptian mummy medical procedures” (http://www.egyptartsite.com/mummy.html):

1. Ancient Egyptians used a substance called Natron, found only near the Nile River, to dry the body before mummification.

2. Ancient Egyptians believed that six important things made up human beings: the physical body, shadow, name, “ka” (spirit), “ba” (personality), and the “akh” (immortality). All six of them had to be present to have a successful afterlife.

Think of narrowing your topic like going to your “family doctor” versus going to a “specialist”. Your “family doctor” gives you regular check ups, shots, and treats you when you are sick. “Specialists” are doctors like orthopedic surgeons. They are specially trained to treat injuries related to bones and muscles. If your topic is like your “family doctor” – covers a broad range of information – then you need to narrow it until it’s like a “specialist” – a topic that is its own narrow category.

Summary

Many students can save time – and produce better research papers – by asking “why?” questions to narrow their topic. Once you have a more refined topic, you can review and edit your thesis statement to match. Then, you can scan the facts and information you’ve already gathered and select the best ones for your new topic. The result will be a research paper that’s focused, clearly written, and much easier to read and understand.

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