Written by Patricia Sipes, edited by Alex Eakins

Research begins with an idea, even those research papers assigned by a professor begin with that little lightbulb. Like a lightbulb, usually those ideas are broad. We need a refined idea, more like a stream of light emanating from a laser pointer. That's what this page is for. For the purposes of this page, the examples used will be literary in nature, but the process works for other disciplines as well.

I.  Topic

The broadest beginnings are often where a research paper starts. It can be something as broad as writing a paper on Modernist literature or as narrow as looking at a specific work, for this example, "In a Station of the Metro," a twenty word (two line) poem by Ezra Pound. Neither subject can be wholly written about in just ten to fifteen pages, much less in a doctoral dissertation.

For the most successful research paper, we want to continuously widdle away at the broadest ideas until they are smaller and smaller and smaller, narrow as a thread.

II.  Narrowing the Question

Ask yourself "so what about?" and "why?" If you're a bit more snarky like us, you might ask, "Who cares!?" Never forget the audience. These questions can work in conjunction with each other, or they can be used by themselves. By continuously posing yourself these questions your topic will narrow itself down to a more manageable range. When you get to the point that it is too hard to ask these questions, your topic should be focused enough to be direct your research.

III. Example

Contained below is a very simplified version of the narrowing process. Each step can involve its own sense of basic research, as you look to for ways to narrow it down.

The topic is Modernism.

What about Modernism? Ezra Pound.

What about Ezra Pound? His development of Imagisme.

What about Imagisme? How it is exemplified in "In a Station of the Metro."

Why? Because "In a Station of the Metro" is written with extra spacing, and I simply refuse to believe that there is a reason.

Who cares? Nerds, literary critics, professors of English.

At this point, there seems to be a distinct question formed.

IV.  Question to Statement

It is easy to see the question proposed in the last statement: For what purpose are the extra spaces in "In a Station of the Metro" included?

By having a very focused question, you can further narrow research, by the time you are done answering your own question, you can restate the question to fit a generic thesis "The extra spaces in "In a Station of the Metro" were included for _____________."

V. Hints and Tips

When you narrow things down, don't be afraid to make a tree of possibilities; you may find once you start researching your very narrow topic that you cannot find enough information to support the claim you are trying to make, by either opening up your question to the next tier, or switching to a different ending question, you might have better results.

Sometimes the best way to do the question exercise is to have a friend ask the questions.  If you ask yourself, you tend to try and think a few steps ahead, anticipating what you might ask.  A friend or research partner will catch you off guard and make you think more closely, producing more filled-out responses and questions.

Additionally, do not think that just because you are focused on this tiny part of the bigger picture that you should ignore things that seem irrelevant.  If they look interesting, take a quick look and file it away:  This is where a research diary is particularly helpful; look under Organizing Research for more information on that subject.