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How to Narrow Your Focus for a Paper

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Sometimes we are gifted with the ability to choose our own topic for class. For the writer, this means endless possibilities. But for the student that writes out of necessity this could a bit intimidating, and frustrating. Narrowing down the focus of your paper early will be a big stress reliever, and it will save you time when you start to conduct research in the online library.

When confronted with the vague paper topic you need to ask yourself a few questions before getting started:

  1. What is the main focus of the reading?
    Most writing topics are centered around your weekly reading, so it’s natural to tap the source before you start researching.
  2. Can I relate other materials from the class to this topic?
    If you’re reading a new study on biological processes how can it relate to other items being taught in the class? Making these types of connections will set your paper apart from your classmates, and you may learn something valuable in the process.
  3. What interest do I have in the topic, and what is fascinating about it?
    This is possibly the most important question. If you’re not interested in the topic you picked, then your writing will reflect the indifference. Focus on something you’re passionate about.

Now that you’ve answered these questions you’ll notice you have the start of an outline. If you’re still not at this place, take some time to write down a few alternative topics or thesis statements. You can always consult with your instructor if you have doubts about the quality of your argument, or throw it out to a family member or friend that has some practical writing advice.

[see also: How to Excel in Graduate School]

When the topic is right, you’ll know. Read it out loud and make up a couple of sentences to start off the argument, and then write down the resources you will need. Think of these resources as supplies. Make a list of topics you will need to research in order to successfully complete this mission, and then explore the online library. Use scrutiny when reviewing search results. Always read the abstract before committing your time to reading the whole article or book. Take notes as you go along and carefully label the sources. I prefer to make a running log of my works cited as I research, that way I don’t have to spend extra time later going back and finding the original source.

Now that you’re in the middle of researching, you should be good to go. Sometimes your original thesis may take another shape upon finding new or conflicting information. This is OK! Document your thoughts as you go along so you can refer back to them when it comes time to start filling out your paper. There is no such thing as an impossible topic, or a too vague assignment. Always remember that you can consult with your professor if you’re unsure of their expectations, but if they give you the opportunity to roam free take it!

By J. Mason
Online Learning Tips Editor

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