Getting Started

Choosing an essay or research topic can be challenging. Topics can be questions or problems, so think about what you want to learn. Knowing where to look for an idea can be helpful. Here are some ways to help you get started:

  • Handbooks and encyclopedias often give a good overview of a subject area and provide relevant background information, as well as key terms that can be used when searching the databases. Find handbooks, encyclopedias, and specialized dictionaries in the library's collection by checking the online Subject Guides.
  • Did you discuss an interesting topic in class that you would like to learn more about? Ask your instructor for advice about turning it into an essay.
  • Consult the textbook for your class and look at the Table of Contents for possible topics.
  • Try reading online daily news sources for something that might spark your interest by looking for things that you care about.
  • Explore a topic that you know nothing about but wish you did. Browse Wikipedia for ideas.
  • Watch the video Using Wikipedia Wisely for research tips.

Selecting an Appropriate Topic

  • Evaluate the potential topic you have found. Are you interested in writing about this topic? Many scholars have found that the more interest they have in something, the easier it is to research and write about it.
  • Are you writing a 5 page paper, or a paper for a 4th year research project?
  • Choose a topic that can be reasonably addressed in the essay length that you are writing.
  • If your topic is too broad, you will not be able to address it in a thorough or interesting manner. If your topic is too narrow, you may not have enough to write about and may have difficulty finding research resources.
  • Finally, consider the goal of your essay. Are you supposed to write an essay that describes, compares and contrasts, analyzes, or argues an issue? This will affect the way in which you approach the topic.

Translating your topic into a Research Question

After gathering background information, one of the easiest ways to focus your topic is to frame it as a question.

  • Research is not passive reporting, but a search for answers.
  • Consider what you want your reader to find out.
  • What is your voice in the dialogue on your topic?

For example, after doing some reading on graffiti (or street art), you may discover that there are many controversies involving racism, local artists, vandalism and city regulations. There are a number of ways to further focus your interest by asking questions, such as:

  • Who is involved? local artists? disaffected youth? city councillors?
  • What are the negative effects of graffiti? Is all street art bad?
  • How does graffiti impact the community? is it appreciated? is it desired?
  • Are there any useful comparisons you can make regarding street art and the wider use of public spaces?
  • What are the pros and cons or ethical arguments for street art? against street art?

Mind mapping is a great way for organizing your topic. It will help you visualize your topic by diagramming the keywords. Try out these free options:

Do you still need help?

  • Don't wait to ask for help. If you are having problems, talk to your instructor or TA. They are there to help you, so don't be afraid to ask questions.
  • Email the Research Specialists at any time and ask us for help.
  • Writing Services also offers students instruction on developing an argument, structuring ideas, and writing well.
Content last reviewed: