Choosing a Topic

pad and pencil

A topic can be as simple as finding the capital of Texas or as complex as discussing the ethics of cloning human beings. Whatever it is, your topic is always the starting point of your research.

Some topics are easier to research than others. The purpose (“WHY?“) of your research — personal interest? a short report? research paper? — may affect the complexity of your research strategy.

Is It a Research Paper or a Report?

A research paper involves finding facts and theories, evaluating or interpreting those facts or theories, and then adding some original thought. It is NOT the same as writing a report.

A report records or restates facts without any evaluation or interpretation. (Roth, Audrey J. The Research Paper: Process, Form, and Content. 5th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1986, p. 3.)

For example, if you are writing a paper called “Violence on Television,” it is a report. You would be finding facts, data, information and restating the information you find. Your report might look at the history of television violence and include examples of violence in different television shows.

How would you turn this report topic into a research topic? The example below would require not only gathering facts, data, and theories, but also evaluating and interpreting this information, as well as requiring original thought.

Research topic: “The Impact of Television Violence on Children”

Stating Your Topic as a Question

A good way to begin your research is to state your topic as a question. This will help you clarify your thoughts and define your topic.

Using the example report topic of “violence on television,” the following questions are examples of research topics:

How has television violence changed in the last 30 years?

Does television violence cause youth violence?

As you research your topic, you will formulate an answer to your research question, and the answer that you develop will become the thesis statement in your research paper. The thesis statement is the main idea that you explore, develop, and support in your paper.

For the research questions above, possible thesis statements might be:

There is more violence depicted on television today than 30 years ago,
and the depictions are more graphic and more violent.

Television violence has no effect on youth violence.

Topic Selection Tips

Selecting a topic for a report or research paper should be a careful, deliberate choice. Keep these tips in mind:

  • TIME:  Plan ahead. Allow plenty of time to do research AND write your paper.
  • INTEREST:  Everything will seem to go faster and easier if you like your topic.
  • ENOUGH INFORMATION:  If you can't obtain an adequate amount of information, the topic may be too new; the library doesn't have much material, or it does, but it's all checked out. In any of these cases, you'll need to change or modify your topic.
  • FIT:  Make sure that your topic fits the assignment. Check with your instructor when in doubt.
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