Selecting a Topic

Contributor: Jodi Powell. Lesson ID: 11705

Choosing from a fancy restaurant menu can be more difficult than picking from a pizza place -- too many options! Same is true when you have to pick a topic, but you will learn how to narrow them down!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Often times when doing a research paper, you (as the writer) are assigned a topic, or sometimes given a small selection of options. There are times, however, when the sky is the limit! So, how do you choose?

Before moving on, if you missed or would like to review the introduction Related Lesson in our Writing a Research Paper series, you can find it in the right-hand sidebar.

The freedom of selecting your own topic for a research paper is both exciting and overwhelming!

It is great because it allows you to choose a topic you're interested in. It can be overwhelming, however, because then you must think:

  1. What do I choose?
  2. What is a reasonable topic?
  3. Is this topic too broad?
  4. Is this topic too specific?

Don't fear, because there is a helpful way to answer each of these questions.

Begin by viewing the video, How to Develop a Good Research Topic (KStateLibraries):

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A Teacher's Discovery book, entitled Research Paper Procedure: High School, by Amy M. Kleppner and Cynthia Skelton, organizes the process into four primary tasks:

Task 1: Select an excellent topic. This means a topic that:

  • genuinely sparks personal interest.
  • is consistent with the purpose of the assignment.
  • shows awareness of the intended audience.
  • is sufficiently narrow for a project of the length and form assigned.
  • has social, historical, political, scientific, or literary significance or value.
  • is not exceedingly vague or general (for example, "the meaning of life," or "the causes of world conflict")

Task 2: Find an angle. It's a good idea to:

  • heed any special requirements for the assignment. Does it call for a position paper, a comparison, a causal analysis, a solution to a problem, or an op-ed piece?
  • find an approach that will distinguish this paper from others.
  • focus on a specific aspect of the topic instead of trying to deal with a large general subject.
  • consult the parent or teacher to confirm that the topic is acceptable.

Task 3: Do some serious preliminary work. Serious preliminary work includes:

  • consulting librarians and other local experts.
  • reading articles in general encyclopedias or other reference works.
  • making sure that adequate resources are available for the focus being considered.
  • using the Internet, databases, and other electronic sources.
  • looking at the subject from different angles and taking different approaches. For an example of this, view Examples of Alternate Approaches, found in Downloadable Resources in the right-hand sidebar. Read over the handout and notice how a single topic can be taken in several different directions. You will practice doing this yourself later in the lesson.

Task 4: Brainstorm Brainstorming includes:

  • listing ideas and making an outline.
  • creating a concept webbing or branching diagrams, writing down as many ideas as possible connected with the subject.
  • freewriting (also called fastwriting) to generate a flow of ideas on the topic.
  • allowing time to contemplate information gathered on the general subject or topics being considered.

Also, keep in mind these five questions:

  1. Can you focus your research on a specific aspect of the topic?
  2. Can you narrow your topic to a specific time period?
  3. Can you narrow your topic to a specific event?
  4. Can you narrow your topic to a specific geographical area?
  5. Can you narrow your topic to a specific problem or question?

Next, view the video, Choosing a Manageable Research Topic: Avoiding Pitfalls (PfauLibrary), to learn how to avoid the most common pitfalls. Take down a few notes while you're watching:

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Discuss with your teacher or parent some of the most helpful tips you learned from the video.

Continue on to the Got It? section, where you will do some application of your own.

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