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English Composition: Start Your Research

Identify Your Topic

Brainstorm Ideas

Selecting a topic can be tricky. Your professor will usually assign a general theme that reflects the course material and your paper will need to focus on some aspect of that theme. Look through lecture notes and assigned readings to find a topic. Start by thinking of a topic you are interested in or curious about. Researching a topic that sparks your interest can be a great motivator.

Create a Concept Map

Once you've selected a general topic, create a concept map. Concept maps help you identify subtopics and topic-related ideas.

Write down your central topic (if you don't have one yet, use the course theme). Around the central topic, write down as many subtopics as you can think of. Continue writing related ideas and subtopics. As you write, think about how the subtopics might interconnect with each other or how they relate. Think of questions you might have about those connections.

Some helpful websites for concept mapping:

  • Visuwords - an interactive thesaurus and dictionary. Provides related terms, synonyms, broader and narrower terms.

  • Bubbl - an online concept mapping tool. (3 maps are free)

Narrow Your Topic or Research Question

Identify Open vs. Close-Ended Questions

Close-ended questions can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no," whereas open-ended questions go beyond a simple answer and require mindful, detailed responses.  Your research question should be open-ended. Open-ended questions require more critical thinking and sources of information to answer compared to close-ended questions.
Research questions often start with "how" or "why".

Here is an example of a close-ended question modified into an open-ended question:
Close-ended: Do many children in the U.S. have allergies?
Open-ended: How does country of birth affect a child's chances of developing asthma?

Ask Who? What? When? Where? Why?

Once you have a basic understanding of your topic and the issues surrounding it, narrow your research question by asking the following questions:

  • Who? - Are you interested in a specific group of people? Can you narrow your focus to a group or demographic, such as age, gender, ethnicity, location, or socio-economic status?
  • What? - What are current issues around this topic? Anything in the news?
  • When? - Is your topic current or historical? Was it during a specific time period? Are there any important events surrounding your topic? 
  • Where? - Can your topic focus on a specific location? Where, geographically, might this topic be significant?
  • Why? - Why is this topic important? Why should others be interested?

It's okay for your research question to change over time as you find more information about your topic, or take out ideas that don't work.

For more help, check out the libraries' Quick How To page on Generating a Research Question.

Find Background Information

Browse Information Sources

Once you've identified a topic you'd like to explore further, take the time to get to know more about that topic. This step is called background research. Background research helps you:

  • Gain familiarity with a topic
  • Identify differing perspectives of a topic
  • Identify the experts, researchers, and scholars familiar with a topic 
  • Explore possible research topics
  • Identify specialized terms or jargon that can be used for searches later

Here are some sources of background information to consider as you explore your research topic:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Newspapers & magazines
    • Newspapers and magazines are regular publications of events covering social, political, or cultural interests. They often document the reactions, perspectives and opinions of an event around the time it happened. They can help you learn more about a culture, time period, and provide historical perspective to past events.
  • Internet
    • Google - Search engines like Google can lead you to both good and bad information. Be critical of the websites you visit. For more help on evaluating sources go to the "Evaluate Your Sources" section below.
    • Wikipedia - Wikipedia is a useful resource to start learning more about a topic, but remember that anyone can edit Wikipedia. Use the References of Further Readings at the end of an entry to verify information within the article. 

Refine Your Searches

Use Keywords, Not Sentences

The keywords you use are an important part of your search strategy. Keywords, or search words, are words or short phrases that represent the main ideas or concepts in your topic. Identify main concepts by writing down your research question and selecting nouns important to the meaning of your research question.

For example, the research question "How is climate change affecting agriculture in Nevada?" has three main concepts:

  • climate change
  • agriculture
  • Nevada

It's important to have additional keywords on hand, in case a search fails or doesn't produce desired results. For each main concept, write a list of related terms, synonyms, broader or narrower ideas. Brainstorm related terms, ask a classmate/professor/librarian for help, use a thesaurus, or continuing reading about your topic.

For more help, check out the Quick How To page on Choosing Keywords.