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EN 121: English Composition

Questions to ask yourself about your topic

1. What do you already know about your topic? Answering this may help you decide on keywords to use in your search for books, articles, and websites.

2. What do you want / need to know about your topic?  A good overview of your topic will help you start to understand the multiple aspects and layers of a subject.  (See box at right)

3. Does your topic relate to a specific time period? Do you need historical background? Is your topic currently in the news?  Answering these questions can determine what resources you need to use in your research.

4. Is there a specific dimension of the topic that you want / need to cover?  For example, legal issues, effects on society, psychological aspects, cultural background, statistical analysis, etc.

5. Does your instructor have specific requirements in terms of the information you need and the resulting length of your paper or oral presentation?  Does your instructor require specific types of resources, such as books, scholarly articles, newspaper articles?

What is a researchable topic?


  • Able to be covered within your paper's page limits & within your time frame
  • Sufficient, reliable information available


  • Too broad to cover properly
  • Too narrow to find adequate information
  • Too vague to find solid information
  • Too little information available

TIP #1: Check out your topic before you commit. Look for an overview or one good article. Be sure you can find enough useful information in reliable, published sources. You don't have to read, or even find, all of your sources yet but look just enough to verify your topic is researchable and that you'll have something to say.

TIP #2: Your topic may evolve as you do your research.  If you can, be flexible and refine or refocus your topic.


Finding Overviews of Topics

Topic overviews:

  • provide background material and historical perspective
  • describe and define topic and related issues
  • provide key terms to use as search terms when looking for books, articles, & relevant websites
  • help you focus or narrow your topic 
  • may list sources for more information

For an overview, look for a general or subject-specific encyclopedia, handbook, or dictionary.


What keywords or phrases best reflect your topic? Think about different ways to express your topic using:

  • synonyms (e.g. cars/automobiles),
  • alternate/related concepts (e.g. capital punishment/death penalty, trends/fashion forecasting, flats/fashion illustration/fashion drawing,  contractors/private label manufacturers)  
  • broader and narrower topics (umbrellas/accessories, authors/science fiction writers)
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