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First-Year Writing Seminar

A collection of research resources for students enrolled in First Year Writing Seminar.

Narrowing a Topic

Skip to the accessible text of the "Narrowing a Topic and Developing a Research Question" infographic.Infographic of the "Narrowing a Topic and Developing a Research Question" process. The full text version is available after this image.

You may not know right away what your research question is. Gather information on the broader topic to explore new possibilities and to help narrow your topic.

Choose an interesting topic

If you’re interested in your topic, chances are that others will be, too. Plus researching will be a lot more fun!

Gather background information

  • For a general overview, reference resources may be useful
  • The database EBSCO Discovery Service is also a good place to start narrowing your focus and finding resources.
  • Ask yourself:
    • What subtopics relate to the broader topic?
    • What questions do these resources raise?
    • What do you find interesting about the topic?
  • Consider your audience. Who would be interested in this issue?

Reference Resources

Reference sources are a great place to begin your research. They provide:

  • a way to identify potential research topics
  • a staring point to gather information on your topic
  • an introduction to major works and key issues related to your topic
  • key authors in your area of research

General Reference Sources

Dictionaries and encyclopedias provide general information about a variety of subjects. They also include definitions aha may help you break down and better understand your topic. They are generally not cited, since they mainly give and overview of a topic. 

From Topic to Research Question

After choosing an topic and gather in background information, add focus with a research question.

Explore questions

  • Ask open ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic
  • Consider the “so what” of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others?
  • Reflect on the questions you have considered. Identify one or two questions you find engaging and which could be explored further through research.

Determine and evaluate your research question

  • What aspects of the more general topic will you explore?
  • Is your research question clear?
  • Is your question focused? (Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available.)
  • Is your research question complex? (Question shouldn’t have a simple yes/no answer and should require research and analysis.)


After you’ve come up with a question, consider the path that your answer might take.

  • If you are making an argument, what will you say?
  • Why does your argument matter?
  • How might other challenge your argument?
  • What kind of sources will you need to support your argument?

Sample Research Questions


  • Unclear: why are social networking sites harmful?
  • Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook?


  • Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
  • Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antartica?

Simple vs. Complex

  • Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S?
  • Appropriately complex: Wha are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to add the medical community in prevention of the disease?

Adaptation Credit

This page's content was adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to write a research question. Retrieved from