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Focusing Your Research Paper

Want help in making sure your paper topic is something you are interested in and you can manage to write about? Follow this step-by-step guide to improve your results. Want help creating an outline for your paper or learning how to successfully write a 1

Topic Brainstorming Table

So, your professor has told you your topic of eating disorders is too broad.  She doesn't think you can write a good paper proving your claims and keep to the required length. 

Use the link below to open the Word document "Topic Table."

Using the Table:

Fill in your main idea ("eating disorders," say) in the Subject column

> Use the boxes below here to list more specific terms you might know ("bulemia," "anorexia," etc.)

In the Where column fill in a country or state name(s)

> At this point, these can be broad - "United States," "China" - or more narrow, a specific state or city
> You might consider filling in two or three of these boxes as I'll mention a technique later on that will use multiple locations to your advantage
> This may seem pointless, but remember that we really do live in a global world and geography is one of the quickest ways to limit a broad topic (and eliminate research in a language you don't read!)

In the When column, fill in some dates

> These can be really broad ("present," "20th century") or more specific (tied to a specific event, like the "South Beach Diet" or some fad or an individual's death from complications of eating disorders)

In the Who column put down some ideas on what group you might focus on or what people or groups are most effected by the topic you've chosen. 

> For "eating disorders" this might include: models, boys, media images of women, etc.

Use the Main Focus column to think of the "lens" through which you want to look at this topic: psychology, health, activism, self-help, media, etc. 

A Topic Table for the idea of eating disorders might look something like this:




Specific Event,



(Time span,



(Target Group)



Eating disorders United States Present college girls    psychology
Bulemia China 1950/2000 teen boys media images
Anorexia Urban vs. Rural 1950 - 2000 models

Fad diets  OR

South Beach Diet??



There is a link at the top of this box to a blank Topic Table you can use for your topic brainstorming session.

Other Ways to Focus a Topic

One way to see how broad or focused your topic is would be to look the topic up in a subject specialty encyclopedia.  These are not like the encyclopedias you used in high school; instead, they are already focused on a particular subject and explore the topics within that area more fully and in a more scholarly way than the general encyclopedia can. 

Find such and article, look it over, and ask yourself how long the article is and how many subsections it has. Do you understand all the concepts that are included in this article? The answers to these questions might help you decide if you are still trying to accomplish too much in your paper.

While you are looking the article over, ask these questions, too:

  • Is there any jargon used you need to make a note of
  • does the article mention any important people or organizations you might want to note
  • are there any books or articles in the bibliography you should check into
  • are there any see also or cross-references that are more interesting to you

You can find subject specialty encyclopedias in OneSearch by typing in the broad subject (say, education) and encyclopedias (be sure to use the plural form). 

Test for success

How else might you know if you've got a manageable topic?  Take a few of the keywords you've used to fill out the table and plug them into a general database (see the list below, any one of these will do).  If your results list has only about 25 hits, you've got a topic you can handle well in a 10 - 12 page paper.  If you've got more than 30 hits, you'll want to focus your topic a bit more (here's where the date range/time period will serve you well) or consult one of the Librarians to get some more help.  You can also chat with us online during library hours.

Realistically, you're not likely to read even 25 articles for a 10 - 12 page paper, so don't bite off more than you can chew this early on. 


Once you've selected the keywords you want to focus on in your paper you'll need just a little bit of work to form them into your topic statement.  Let's say for a paper on eating disorders your keywords are these:

  • SUBJECT: eating disorders
  • WHERE: U.S. colleges
  • WHEN: present/last 5 years
  • WHO: men
  • MAIN FOCUS: Gender differences or psychology

With a few extra words you might come up with a topic statement like this:

The rise of eating disorders among college men is a new area for psychological research.  Should psychologists and counselors apply what they know about women and eating disorders to men? Or is there a gender difference that requires the use of a different approach in men compared to women?

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