How to Narrow Your Topic

So you’re preparing to writing a paper and you’ve decided to do it on, say, the civil rights movement. Ding ding ding! (warning bells).

A general topic leads to generalizations, and that is the kiss of death. In the academic world, specificity is king. (I mean, think about it: raise your hand if you have a prof who is a leading expert on something you’ve never heard of? Everyone? I rest my case. You must be specific.)

And besides the danger zone of writing in generalizations, a general topic can be difficult because it’s hard to choose relevant research sources, make a clear argument backed by evidence, etc.


So, how do you take your general idea and narrow it to make a good, tight paper topic?

Here are some ideas:

  • limit it to a specific time period (example)

    e.g. not just American quilt making, but American quilt making in the 18th century


  • limit it to a specific location or region
    e.g. not just the history of slavery, but the history of slavery in Atlanta


  • limit it to a specific person or group
    e.g. not just the civil rights movement, but the role of the NAACP in the 1960s


  • limit it to a specific discipline/angle/aspect (historical, sociological, psychological, policy impact, etc)
    e.g. not just the New Deal, but the impact of Roosevelt’s New Deal on federal housing policy of the 1940s


  • limit it to a particular genre, or even particular piece of work
    e.g. not just Adolf Hitler, but Adolf Hitler’s ideas as expressed in Mein Kampf


  • ask why the topic is important, particularly to the class’s field of study
    e.g. not just impressionism, but why should we consider impressionism an important artistic movement?


  • limit it to a particular controversy
    e.g. not just English-American relations in the 18th century, but their dispute about just taxation in the 18th century





This information was compiled from resources from Briercrest College, Duke University, Harvard, Southwestern University, UCLA and the University of Toronto.