Focusing a research topic is narrowing (or sometimes broadening) a topic so that you can demonstrate a good understanding of it, including enough examples and important details, within the size limits of the project you are required to produce. You need to satisfy both yourself and your teacher that you know what you are talking about. If your teacher gives you no limits, make them for yourself. You don't want to spend your life on this, at least not right now.

Why should I do it?
This is the #1 biggest pitfall in the research process. If you pick a topic that is too big, you will not only have trouble selecting what to include from a huge selection of material available, you will probably leave out some critical information that will make it apparent (especially to your teacher) that you don't really know what you are talking about.

If, on the other hand, you pick a topic that is too narrow, you won't find enough to write about and end up repeating yourself to fill 6 pages (which doesn't go over very well with teachers either, by the way).

The process of focusing a topic takes practice, so be patient with yourself. It is challenging when you don't know too much about a topic. It will get easier as your knowledge base increases. Remember that the research process is a recursive one which means that you may need to revisit your topic choice more than once if you find it doesn't work out. Luckily there are some strategies and methods to help you through this critically important part of the process. Read on!

How do I do it?
There are different ways to focus your topic. In the Related Links at the bottom of the page you can click on some different methods. Whichever method you choose (and you may do a combination of them) try to pick something that interests you in some way. Even if the overall subject doesn't seem interesting, you can pick an interesting angle on it.


For example:

Say you have to do a research project about World War II, and you don't know a thing about it, nor are you at all interested in it. Try to find a subtopic that connects to your interests.

If you like cars, try comparing the land vehicles used by the Germans and the Americans.
If you like fashion, look at women's fashions during the war and how they were influenced by military uniforms and the shortage of certain materials.
If you like animals, look at the use of dogs by the US Armed Forces.
If you like puzzles and brain teasers, look at the fascinating topic of decoding secret messages.
If you like music, find out what types of music American teenagers were listening to during the war years.
If you are a pacifist, find out what the anti-war movement was like during the war in any country.
Find out what was happening during the war on your birth date.
Find out if any of your relatives fought in the war and research that time and place.

The Encylopedia Method
Tip Sheet 8a

Ask these questions:
What is it?
In this method, you use an encyclopedia article to provide you with the information you need to focus your topic.

How do I do it?
The Encyclopedia Method- CRLS Research Guide
Look up your topic in a general encyclopedia. (You should have done this once already when you looked for an overview.) If you were not able to find the exact name of the topic, look it up in the index volume of the encyclopedia (it is usually at the end of the set) and find out the title of the article under which it is included, then look up the article in that volume. If you are not comfortable with using encyclopedias, ask a librarian for help.
Can't Find it?
If you cannot find anything about your chosen topic in a general encyclopedia, you may have to either broaden the topic, change it, or get some help finding another overview source. Ask a librarian.
Too short?
If you find an article about your topic and it is very short (less than a column) you may have to either broaden it or combine it with another topic using a compare/contrast or some other strategy.
Too Long?
If the encyclopedia article is more than 5 pages long (the Middle Ages, World War II, the human body, dogs, plants, etc.) you will most certainly need to focus the topic down to a narrower one. (see below to do that)
Just Right?
If you can find at least 2 columns, or up to 2 pages about your topic, you probably will be able to find enough material in other sources to write at least a 3-4 page paper about the topic, probably more, if you are creative with your approach. You will probably be able to make the whole topic your paper, but you still may need to do some focusing of the topic.
Focusing Using an Encyclopedia Article
Most good encyclopedias have helpful headings and sub-headings to organize the information within their longer articles. Some even have outlines at the end of the article so you can see quickly how they have organized the entire subject. You can use these headings to help you focus your topic by picking one that looks interesting. You can read the entire article for an overview of the complete subject (or at least a few sections on either side along with the introduction) and then focus the rest of your information search on the smaller sub-topic you have chosen. You can also use the 'related articles' section at the end of the article to direct you to more useful information about the topic. You may need to do this a few times until you get your topic down to a reasonable size.
For example:

Say you need to do a project about the Renaissance in Europe. You look it up in an encyclopedia and find a huge article. First you read the first few introductory paragraphs for a general overview, then you skim the whole article quickly, just reading the subtopic headings and looking at the pictures. You see that there is a section on architecture and that is a subject you've always been interested in, so you read that section. While you are reading about Renaissance architecture you discover some names of important architects like Brunelleschi. So you look him up and find there is huge amount just about his work, along with some neat pictures of buildings he designed. You have now focused/narrowed your topic down from the Renaissance, to Renaissance Architecture, to the Renaissance Architecture of Brunelleschi. Once you read more about his life and work in other sources, you may want to focus it down even further to a period in his life, some buildings he designed, or the impact of his work on that of other architects. Or, you may choose a different architect or architectural style...
Just as a building can be designed in an endless variety of ways, given certain basic needs like doors, walls, etc. so you can be the designer of your research topic. Take it where you will!


The Subtopic Method
Tip Sheet 8b

Ask these questions:
What is it?
This method lets you decide on a certain general subtopic word by which to focus your topic. You can develop these subtopic words yourself or use some of the ones in the example below. You can also combine these general subtopics.

How do I do it?
The Subtopic Method
You could choose to focus a topic by one, or even more than one, limiting subtopic. We'll use World War II as an example, a big topic that needs focusing. The limiting subtopics we'll look at are; chronological, geographical, biographical, event-based and technological. You may think of others that could apply to your topic.
Focusing Chronologically

World War two lasted from 1939 to 1945. In those 6 years much took place to change the lives of millions of people and to redefine the boundaries of many countries. You could pick a particularly crucial year, month, week, or even a day, like D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe, and have much to write about. The library has reference books that detail the war day by day. Ask a librarian.
Focusing Geographically
World War II affected almost every country in the world, even if fighting did not take place there. You could focus on the war in one geographical region, such as Europe or Asia where most of the actual fighting took place, or one country such as India and how, as a British Colony, it was affected. You could even pick a country to which you have a connection, by birth or heritage, and find out how it was affected by the war. It may have affected your own family in some way.
Focusing Biographically
You may choose to look at the war through the focus of a particular person, or group of persons. You may look at how the war was experienced by an African-American or Japanese-American soldier, both of whom faced discrimination for different reasons.
What about from the experience of an American President, or a German or Italian dictator, a Japanese General?
How about the mother of an American soldier, a German prisoner of war, an American nurse in a South Pacific naval base, an prisoner in a Japanese-American internment camp, or a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp?
This an example of a history research project, but you will be able to find a biographical focus in other subject areas as well. Just try to find how your subject affects or was influenced by human beings.
Focusing on an Event
You may want to look in depth at a particular event. D-day would also fall under this category. So would the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Battle of the Bulge (or any other major battle that influenced the flow of the war), the signing of a particular peace treaty, or the forming of an alliance. If you use this focus, you will want to look at the cause of the event and the effect it had, in addition to the event itself.

Focusing Technologically
If you are interested in science, technology, machines, or human ingenuity in general, you may choose this criteria. For World War II you could focus on a particular vehicle like German U-boats, submarines, B-52 bombers, Panzer tanks. You could look at the science of the atomic bomb. Or you could look at the coding used to relay secret messages and the methods of code-breaking that allowed strategic information to leak to the Allies (and incidentally gave rise to the development of modern computers). You may even be interested in the ingenious ways prisoners attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in breaking out of prisoner of war or concentration camps.

The Question Method
Tip Sheet 8c

Ask these questions:
What is it?
This method is one in which you narrow your topic by focusing on a question you have about the topic. The question will have to be complex enough to deserve a thoughtful answer. It is generally not a question with a simple factual answer, although people may have already expressed many opinions on the matter. In many cases the answer may require you to interpret factual information and give your own opinion. In this case, these questions are called "interpretive questions". It is worth taking the time to develop such questions.

How do I do it?
The Question Method
You will need to have a fairly good overview of your topic already to develop a question. You may already have a good, interpretive question in mind. If you need some ideas for good questions, go to Brainstorming Research Questions.
Developing your own interpretive questions will allow you the most creative freedom in your research project.
Example:
Let's use World War II for this example.
You may wonder why the Germans lost the war, or why the Americans didn't get involved earlier.
Why did so many nations refuse Jewish refuges fleeing from Nazi Germany, or why did Germans want to get rid of all Jews so badly that they decided to kill them?
Why did America feel justified in dropping the Atomic bomb on 2 Japanese cities even though they knew how much death and destruction it would bring to innocents?
What would possibly have happened in the Pacific war if America had not dropped the atomic bombs?
There are many possible questions about any topic. Take some time to develop and refine your question until you can state it clearly as a Statement of Purpose. Ask your teacher for help with this part of the process.