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Information Literacy: Develop a Topic


If you’re lucky, your instructor will suggest topics for you. But if not, there are many ways to come up with topics:

  • Look closely at class readings and assignments. Follow your natural interests. Many books and articles have suggestions for further reading and research. Scan these as well.
  • Is there an issue raised in class that has personally affected you or your community?
  • Can you relate current events in your community or the world at large which interest you to issues discussed in class?
  • Talk about your class with friends and family. Sometimes a good conversation will inspire you to know more about something.
  • Browse the library. Your librarian can show you where to browse in the physical stacks and or in the databases or other online resources.
  • Browse the web. Do some basic Googling on topics and issues you read about and discuss in class. See what you find.

Once you have a general idea for a topic you will then need to consider how to properly scope it.

A good topic is like Goldilocks's porridge: it is neither too broad nor too narrow. For example:

Too broad: Global Warming
Too narrow: The effects of global warming on the Gap Creek in Cumberland Gap Tennessee.

The research question or thesis is that sweet spot in between that is just right.

This page gives you one example of how you might go about refining a topic into a more focused thesis. This process will of course vary depending on the nature of your project.

Though we introduce the idea of tightly focusing your research here at the beginning, in reality you may well find that you will not be able to do this until you've started researching and reading sources more deeply. So if you find yourself unable to do this at the beginning, take heart and remember that research is rarely a straightforward process. It typically involves a lot of back and forth, jumping ahead and going back. At some point however, you should focus your research on a specific question or thesis.

Crafting a Thesis: In the beginning stages of working on an essay assignment, it's important to be able to move from a set of keywords and concepts to a solid working thesis which can guide the further research and writing on your paper.

A thesis is a firm statement of claim regarding your topic. Where a topic simply names a subject area that could be discussed in any of a variety of ways, the thesis actually moves the discussion of that topic in a very certain direction. The thesis says something concrete about the topic.

When making a thesis, keep a few things in mind. The thesis is not a claim that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no". It is also not a simple statement of fact, nor is it simply an assertion of opinion.

Consider the following ways of responding to a writing assignment about Gary Snyder's poem "Axe Handles":

Relevant Keyword or Concept Work
Topic The Idea of Work in Gary Snyder's "Axe Handles"
Yes/No Question Is Gary Snyder's poem a successful poem?
Simple Statement of Fact "Axe Handles" begins with Snyder giving his son Kai a lesson in how to throw a hatchet.
Assertion of Opinion "Axe Handles" is the greatest Beat poem written about physical work.

Notice that none of the above examples are examples of a thesis. The keyword and topic don't yet say anything about Snyder's ideas about work in the poem. With any yes/no question, the answer is simply one word -- either "yes" or "no" -- which doesn't encourage the more detailed discussion expected in the essay. The statement of fact is so obvious that there is no need to say anything more; anyone reading the first few lines of Snyder's poem would know this, so they definitely don't need to read a whole essay about it. Finally, the assertion of opinion simply pushes a value the writer holds on the reader without indicating reasons.

The thesis must do more. Again, it has to make a strong statement about the topic, and that statement should be one that the essay writer can then give a variety of evidence in order to convince the reader. An example of a thesis that uses the above topic might be:

In "Axe Handles," Gary Snyder demonstrates the similar importance of both physical and intellectual work.

If you read this thesis in an essay, you can clearly see what the author is going to do with the bulk of his or her essay: S/he is going to give evidence that will convince the reader that, in "Axe Handles," Gary Snyder shows that he values physical and intellectual work in similar ways. The specific direction of the essay is now fairly clear. That is what any good thesis should do.

How to Narrow Your Topic

Picking your topic IS research

Where to Find Ideas for Topics

Thesis Statements

Selecting and Narrowing a Topic