Friday, February 8, 2008

Focusing Your Topic

By Daneen Bergland

One of the great paradoxes of academic writing is that the narrower your topic, the more you’ll be able to say in your paper. Many students make the mistake of choosing a very broad topic and a vague thesis statement because they are afraid they’ll run out of things to say before they come to the required page length of the assignment. The problem with this tactic is that it prevents the writer from giving in-depth analysis. Or it causes the writer to veer around within the topic without a clear sense of direction. Picture your thesis as a specific destination, a place you’re trying to go to prove your point. The broad topic is a map of the entire country, when you’re really trying to find a street address; whereas, the narrow topic is the city map, full of details, landmarks, and clear directions to get where you need to go.

Narrowing your topic can seem difficult, especially if you’re working on a research paper. You may have found tons of information, all of it interesting and seemingly important. You’ve probably done a lot of work to find all your information and hate the thought of not including all of it in your paper. Take a deep breath and tell yourself whether or not the information you’ve found goes into the paper, it will still be useful as you write your essay and narrow your focus. After all, to the find street you’re looking for, you first need to know what state you’re in.

Here are a couple of ideas taken from Bruce Ballenger’s The Curious Researcher of ways to narrow your topic and find focus. These can be used both at the beginning of your research process, before you’ve started looking, or later in your process, after you’ve done some research and have a good working knowledge of your topic.

Narrow by time, place, story, or person
1. Time. Limit the time frame of your project. Instead of researching the entire Civil War, limit your search to the month or year when the most decisive battles occurred.
2. Place. Anchor a larger subject to a particular location. Instead of exploring “senioritis” at American high schools, research the phenomenon at a local high school.
3. Person. Use the particulars of a person to reveal the generalities about the group. Instead of writing about the homeless problem, write about a homeless man.
4. Story. Ground a larger story in the specifics of a “smaller” one. Don’t write about dream interpretation, write about a dream you had and use the theories to analyze it.

Narrow by relationship
Brainstorm a list of possible relationships between your topic and another.
For instance:
What is the relationship between global climate change and the Internet?
What is the relationship between global climate change and tourism in the U.S.?
What is the relationship between global climate change and advertising?

Once you’ve done some research and taken notes, a good way to narrow your focus is to stand back and look over what you’ve found. Look specifically for patterns or themes that have emerged. Look, too, for possible contradictions or paradoxes. These contradictions are often where you’ll find the most interesting ideas and best opportunities for your own in-depth analysis.

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