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Writing Program

Evaluating Sources

Dominique Battles, English

On Choosing a Topic for Your Research Paper
If you're like most students, the very words "research paper" descend on you like a dark cloud, enveloping you in a vague sense of dread.  Now is the time to change all that.  Here are some basic pointers to finding a topic for your research paper that will make for a fruitful and enjoyable research paper experience.  You deserve no less.

  • Choose something that actually interests you.  Insist upon it.  Doing a research paper can be challenging to begin with, but doing one on a topic you have no interest in is deadly.  Don't go there. 
  • Allow yourself to not know the answers.  One of the biggest stressors to writing a research paper comes from feeling that you have to sound (and write) authoritatively about something you learned about only three weeks ago.  Be honest with yourself and others:  this project is a journey of discovery for you, and your paper will be a journey of discovery for your readers, as you guide them through your learning experience.  While you certainly want to acquire as much expertise as you can in the timeframe allotted for the assignment, allow yourself to be a beginner.  It's a wonderful thing to be.
  • Know that it's okay to change your mind.  You may get into the middle of your research project/paper only to find a better idea that jazzes you even more.  Go with that new question rather than trudging along with the old one.  Consult with your instructor about the change, just to make sure your new idea is feasible.
  • The more focused the topic, the more manageable the assignment will be.  Time spent with your professor narrowing your topic down to size is time well spent.  Trust me. 

So, How Do I Choose a Research Paper Topic?:

  • Find a topic for which there's been a lot written.  Otherwise, finding sources can feel like the search for El Dorado.
  • Find a topic for which there is a difference of opinion.  This way, you're bound to find lots of resources, while working with a question for which there's truly something at stake.
  • Or, challenge consensus opinion on a topic.  This is often best done by introducing the questions and methodologies of another field into the field you're working within.  Perhaps there is archaeological evidence, for instance, that refutes consensus opinion concerning a topic of literature or history or anthropology. 
  • Introduce a new perspective, perhaps based on your own experience.  For example, most scholars who study hunting scenes in literature have never actually hunted.  Are you a hunter? 
  • Question the obvious.  A character in a story is violent and destructive.  Is his/her effect on other characters purely negative, or does he/she exert some positive influence on others, albeit painfully?  Is that funny character simply a goofball, a bit of comic relief, or is he the one who actually knows the secret passage that leads out of danger?
  • Identify the gap.  Map out what is known and not known, or notice where most people approaching this topic tend to look.  Then, explore a gap in the knowledge, or look into the corners and crevices others have overlooked.  Situate your puzzle piece within the larger jigsaw puzzle.
  • Make it yours.  Even within the parameters of an assigned topic, there are lots of ways to make the project your own.  Choose to write the paper you wish you'd had access to when you started this project.  Or choose to write a research paper that feeds into another interest of yours.  Or choose to make this research paper but the beginning of a larger project you'd like to develop further in the future.  Your life.  Your paper.