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Narrowing/Broadening A Topic
Sometimes a topic that seems like the right size for your paper can seem way too big after you’ve learned a little more about it. When this happens, you need to narrow the focus of your paper. You can do this by considering different ways to restrict your paper topic.
Some of the ways you can limit your paper topic are by:
- Who – population or group (e.g., college students; women; Asian Americans)
- What – discipline or focus (e.g., sociological or historical perspective)
- Where – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns)
- When – time period or era (19th century; Renaissance; Vietnam War)
- Why – why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)
For example, a paper about alcohol use would be very broad. But a paper about reasons for alcohol abuse by female college students in the United States during the 1990s might be just right.
Broadening Your Topic
Sometimes you will find that your topic is too narrow - there is not enough published on your topic. When this happens, you can try to broaden your topic. There are a couple of strategies you can try when broadening your topic.
One strategy is to choose less specific terms for your search, e.g., standardized tests instead of SATs or performance-enhancing drugs instead of anabolic steroids.
Another strategy is to broaden your topic by changing or removing limits from your topic:
- Who - population or group (e.g., instead of college students, choose a broader section of the population)
- What - discipline or focus (e.g., instead of choosing a sociological perspective, look at a number of perspectives)
- Where - geographic location (e.g., instead of Michigan, choose United States)
- When - time period or era (e.g., instead of 1984, choose 1980s or 20th century)
For example, a paper about alcohol use by college students at the University of Michigan in 1984 might be too narrow of a focus. But a paper about alcohol use by college students in the 1980s might be just right.
Identifying A Topic That Is Too Broad Or Narrow
How do you know when your topic is too narrow, too broad, or just right? Consider the following points.
When Is A Topic Too Broad
- when it cannot be covered in detail in your assignment
- when all you can write are general statements about a general subject
- when it is hard to research because there is so much information
For example, if during your overview research, you found 100s or 1000s of items relevant to your topic, it is too broad.
When Is A Topic Too Narrow
- when it can be discussed in great detail in less than the required size of your assignment
- when it is hard to research because there is so little information
For example, if, during your overview research, you found only 3 or 4 items relevant to your topic, it is too narrow.
HINT: sometimes, this is because the topic is too current.
When Is A Topic Just Right
- when you can find enough information to examine the subject in detail
- when you can create an interesting and informative project that meet the requirements of your assignment.
What Do I Do If I Can't Decide
- when you can't decide whether a topic is too narrow or too broad ASK A LIBRARIAN to help you find the subject headings for your topic.
- If your topic has subject headings with lots of titles attached to them, then your topic is too broad,
- If your topic has subject headings with lots of subdivisions, then your topic is too broad
- If your topic has very few subject headings and very few titles attached to them, then your topic is probably too narrow.
- If your topic has very few subject headings with few or no subdivisions, then your topic is probably too narrow.