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English 151

Pick a topic and develop a good research question

The first step in writing a research paper is choosing a good topic. Your topic will have to be something that falls within the guidelines provided by your instructor, and should also be something that you find interesting and would like to learn more about.  However, a good research paper involves more than choosing an interesting topic and reporting information on it.  A research paper should attempt to critically analyze a complex problem, and that means you need to develop a focused research question, which is essential to the research process.  By defining exactly what you are trying to find out, your research question influences most of the rest of the steps taken to conduct your research. Follow the guides below to help you choose a topic and develop a good research question:

Video: from topic to research question to keywords

Creating Research Questions

This section will help you consider a topic for your research paper that is interesting to you, and that is researchable using library resources. When you select a topic and focused research question, you’ll want to consider a few things:

  • Does your section of ENG 151 have a theme? Does your professor want your research topic to correspond to that theme?
  • What do YOU find interesting? You are going to spend hours reading information, thinking about how the information fits together, and then writing pages of critical analysis about your topic. This will be a more pleasant experience for you if you are genuinely interested in the topic you choose.
  • Keep in mind that when you are searching for information about your topic, you can only find information that has been published This means you’re looking for a topic that other people are talking about, thinking about, and writing about. So, it needs to be interesting to you, but also to others.
  • Don’t forget that you already know things! Many research papers start from the spark of an idea from something we hear or witness in the world around us.

Remember, your research question is NOT your thesis statement; it’s exploratory. If you start doing research and discover that people are writing articles about a more interesting (or easier to research) question, you can always adjust your question as you collect information.

The tools collected here will help you think about a topic that genuinely interests you, and develop a clear, concise, and researchable question based on that topic.

From Topic to Research Question

Your topic is the general, overarching area that you’re interested in, while the research question is a focused, smaller sliver of information you’re questioning within that topic. Topics are broad, while research questions are focused.

Topic: Urban Transportation

Research Questions could be…. “Why do some neighborhoods/communities oppose or advocate against creating bike lanes in their neighborhoods?” or “What factors increase or decrease the likelihood of electronic car adoption in urban environments?”

Topic: Immigration

Research Questions could be… “How has the United States’ handling of immigration changed from the Obama White House to the Trump White House?” and if that question ends up being too large or unwieldy, you can adjust it to something like, “What does living in a ‘Sanctuary City’ actually mean for undocumented students attending college in New York?” or “How have immigration policies affected families that live on either side of the Texas/Mexico border?” You can adjust your question based on what (and how much) information comes up in your searches.

What Makes a Research Question "Researchable"?

Good question! Coming up with a research question that leads you to a manageable paper is challenging and gets easier with practice. It’s a delicate balance between a few variables.

  • OPEN questions versus SHUT questions: You want to ask a question that doesn’t have an obvious answer, something you can really grapple with. Your topic should have multiple points of view, aspects of it that people don’t all agree on. When the question is open-ended, you have more to investigate. If your question leads to a single point of view, or an obvious answer, you’re going to have a challenging time writing 10 or so pages about it. Shut question: why are vaccines bad? Open question: Where did the debate around vaccines start and why are some convinced vaccines are harmful? What does the science say about the efficacy of vaccines?
  • SPECIFIC, rather than VAGUE. A good question tells you where to start your research right there in the question. A vague one will make you feel like you don’t know where to start, like you could be writing about almost anything. A question like “What does living in a ‘Sanctuary City’ actually mean for undocumented students attending college in New York?” gives you all the terms of the question: sanctuary cities, undocumented people, students, college, NYC. These are your search terms in the library databases! A vague question gives you nothing to hold onto. Vague version: How do folks feel about immigration. AHHHHHHHHH where do I start? Who are the folks? Why might they have feelings? Where are they coming from? Where do they live now?
  • FOCUSED, rather than BROAD. The paper your professor wants you to write is not a report. (But you can use reports in your research!) You are not writing an overview of a huge topic, but rather a focused critical essay of close analysis. Your research question needs to be focused too. A broad question will leave you drowning in a sea of information that you can’t possibly synthesize in a few pages. Too broad: what is the history of slavery in the US? Focused: An exploratory analysis of the arguments (pro and con) around removing statues of southern civil war generals. This second question relates to slavery, but cuts the topic down to a focused (and researchable) issue.
  • ANSWERABLE, but not OBVIOUS. Some of the universe’s interesting questions are not answerable in a research paper you’re writing in a few weeks (or perhaps at all). Why are there so many vampire movies? (Instead, analyze social themes brought up by one of them.) What makes men attack women? (Instead, investigate strategies people use to break the pattern of domestic abuse in relationships.)


Need ideas for topics? Check out these 2 databases

If you are still not sure what topic you would like to explore, the following 2 databases might help.  Click the Browse Issues button in the database to see an alphabetical list of issues: