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The Research Process: A How-To Guide: 1. Define Your Topic

This guide walks you through the seven steps of the research process.

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1. Choose a topic

The first stage in writing a research paper is deciding on a topic. Follow these steps:

  1. Understand the assignment.
  2. Do some brainstorming to come up with a general topic that fits into the requirements of the assignment.
  3. Think of the ways you could approach this topic.  It may help to draw a concept map showing various aspects of your topic.  Use this blank chart as a template, or use an online concept map creator tool like
  4. Try a preliminary search of online reference resources to get some basic info. See the E-Reference Resources page to find good subject encyclopedias in your field.
  5. Based on what you've read, can the topic be narrowed or broadened?

2. Refine your topic

You may need to adjust the scope of your topic based on how much information you find in the early stages of your research.

If your topic is too broad:

If you find too much information, try focusing on one of the following:

  • a specific period of time
         (present, Civil War era, 20th Century)
  • a specific geographic location
         (city/town, state, world)
  • specific individuals, group, population
         (women, children, ethnic group)
  • a specific aspect of the subject
  • the viewpoint of a specific discipline
         (social, political, economic, religious)

If your topic is too narrow:

If you can't find enough information on which to base a paper, think about how you can expand the scope of your topic. Use the topic narrowing criteria above in reverse; for example, look at a larger group of people, a broader time period, or a wider range of situations.

3. Develop a search strategy

At this point, you should translate your topic into a search strategy that you can apply in the library's online catalog and journal databases:

  • State your topic as a question.
  • Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question.
  • Identify synonyms and other related words.

Put these keywords and synonyms into the chart below.

Keywords that
express your
Similar terms for
the keywords in Column One
Concept 1
Concept 2
Concept 3


The effect on children of watching violence on TV

Search strategy:
(children OR adolescents OR teenagers) AND (violence OR violent) AND (television OR tv)