Choosing and Narrowing a Topic

by Writing Center Staff

In graduate school, your professor frequently gives you only a very general topic (often from the course title). 

   Example: Environmental Policy 

You must narrow this topic to something manageable within the scope of a seminar paper. If necessary, clarify the purpose of your paper with your professor. The following approaches may be helpful in choosing and narrowing your topic: 

  • Consider your own course-related interests. Use freewriting to explore your interests.
  • Consider topics from the syllabus and lectures. Recall questions that were asked in class. (Unanswered questions provide particularly fertile ground for exploration.)
  • Use journalistic questions. 

      Examples: What are important issues in environmental policy? Who plays significant roles in policy making? Where are the most innovative policies being developed?
  • Do exploratory reading. Review general sources. 

      Examples: Encyclopedias, Dictionary of American Biography, Corpus Juris Secondum, text books, etc.
  • Review recent journals in your field. 

      Examples: American Political Science Review, Econometrica, Policy Studies Journal, Educational Review, American Historical Review, Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), Feminist Studies
  • Talk with professor, classmates, Writing Center Consultants.
  • Develop a research question to focus your efforts. 

      Example: Are pollution credits an effective policy for reducing air pollution in the L.A. Basin? 


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