PLSC 350

Seminar in Political Science - Writing Intensive

Selecting and Focusing a Topic

Choosing a topic is easy for experts, because they are already involved in the problems and ideas of their discipline.  It is more difficult for beginners.  Take the time to select a topic!  Many students will say that the biggest mistake they made in a paper assignment was to settle on a topic too quickly.

How to choose a topic:

  1. Consider the lectures and readings in your course.  Did something come up that you would like to know more about?
  2. Talk to experienced students about your interests and studies.
  3. Read newspapers and magazines such as:  New York Times (or the NYT Learning Network), Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, or similar. Blogs, Think Tanks and even Wikipedia can help with topic exploration.
  4. Explore reference books and databases.

Try to find a topic that is not common.  Usually the top topics in a database like CQ Researcher or Opposing Viewpoints are already over-worked.  Look further to fnd something fresh.

Once you have some general ideas, it is time to focus.  In order to write a coherent paper, you must focus or sharpen your topic by exploring different aspects and problems, or by addressing a question. 

How to focus:

  1. Ask questions.  ask, what about the topic? Evidence that it is happening?  Impact or effect on something (on what specifically)? Causes or explanations? Popular or creative discourse about it?
  2. Read to learn.  Later you will be reading for research, but start with reading to get an overview or outline of your topic.  Good places for this kind of reading might include News sites and Wikipedia (it is not a reliable source to cite, but it can be a place to begin exploration), reference book articles, review articles or book chapters that give overviews of the topic.

Even when you have focused your topic, you are still not quite done with this phase.  Now it's time to make sure you have something that is not too general and also not too narrow. 

How to check the focus:

  1. Make sure your topic has something in it that will allow you to compare, contrast, analyze, derive meaning or argue, using reliable information.
  2. A research paper is not an opinion paper. If you are arguing that something is good or bad, or it should or shouldn't be done or exist, you're not focused yet.
  3. A research paper is not a report.  If you are only reporting or repeating information, then you do not have a good focus.
  4. If there is too much information, then limit to one particular problem, or subset of the topic, a particular place, time or other aspect.
  5. Sometimes people get stuck with overly narrow questions (such as "copper contamination in the EMU campus soil"). It is possible that research has not been done and you will find no information.  If this happens, then broaden to question to a wider area or more general problem.
Established: consensus Innovative: conversation Unknown: controversy

Identifying Workable Research Topics: find the sweet spot
(based on a lecture by John S. Dunn, Jr. at EMU in 2009)

Already established beliefs and positions Discussion (agreements, disagreements) based on shared assumptions but differing perspectives about issues/questions Not enough consensus among experts to allow constructive dialogue
Accepted fact Exploration about what information would contribute to the conversation, and about questions that might lead to tentative answers Not enough meaningful distinctions or information to agree or disagree
"Nothing here to talk about, let's move on!" "There's something to discuss, and we are still in conversation about perspective or explanation." "Way out in left field here, or we're talking apples and oranges"

Only when you have focused are you ready to start exploring and searching for information with your questions in mind.

More help?  You might like these pages: