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Writing Tip # 1
What’s the Most Important First Step
in Writing a Research Paper ?

By Dr. Thelma T. Reyna
The Writing Pros

Without question, it’s zeroing in on your exact topic.  It doesn’t matter if your research paper is for a college class, if it’s your Master’s Thesis, or your Doctoral Dissertation. It doesn’t matter if your paper is 10 pages long, or 50, or 200 pages.

Usually, university student writers begin with a broad topic of interest to them, such as:

  • American politics
  • The global crisis
  • Problems in education
  • The healthcare crisis
  • Aging in America

Then when they try to “get a handle” on how they’ll adequately “cover” their chosen topic in those 10, 50, or 200 pages, they feel lost…like travelers without a good road map, without a sound itinerary. And just like such travelers, writers with broad topics wander around from page to page, saying much but accomplishing little, literally going around in circles, getting nowhere. This is extremely confusing and frustrating.

What’s the solution? Narrowing the chosen broad topic to a specific, manageable chunk of information. This is sometimes also referred to as “limiting a topic.” It’s the most crucial first step in writing a meaningful, appropriate research paper.

Of course, I’m assuming that the students have, upon receiving the research paper assignment, brainstormed possible topics and obtained approval from their university professor regarding the appropriateness of the broad topic to the course at hand. I’m also assuming that each student has a genuine interest in his or her chosen broad topic. Writing a quality research paper requires tremendous time, thought, and energy. To keep motivated, the writer needs to choose a topic that appeals to him or her.

Steps to Take to Limit Your Topic

So, how do you “limit the topic”? You need to find an aspect of the topic that you can handle thoroughly and meaningfully in the number of pages assigned to you. The key word here is thoroughly. To help you do this, start with your broad topic, and keep asking questions about it. The classic “5 W’s and the H” are helpful: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

Let’s pretend that you have a 25-page paper assigned to you, and that you have chosen “problems in education” as your paper’s topic. Now let’s start narrowing/limiting that topic:

  1. What education? American education. (The rest of the world is off-limits now.)
  2. Where? In California. (The United States is much too big an area to cover.)
  3. What level of education? Elementary? Middle school? High school? Public or private? Let’s choose public high school education.
  4. When, or what time period will you focus on? The 1800’s, 1900’s? Modern-day times? Let’s choose modern-day, or contemporary, times.

So far, our impossibly broad topic of “problems in education” has been narrowed, or limited, to: Problems in Contemporary High School Public Education in Southern California. What a relief! By limiting your chosen topic to this, you are not responsible for “covering” anything not related to your narrowed topic. You don’t have to research any other nation on earth, no other state in the U.S., no other portion of California other than the Southern one, no other grade levels, no other time periods, no private schools. You’ll be able to focus your time and energies on this limited aspect of the broad topic.

You have a better chance of doing a thorough, meaningful job of discussing your chosen topic.

More Thinking, More Narrowing

But more narrowing is still needed. “Problems” covers so many issues, you could write a book called Problems in Contemporary High School Education in Southern California. Yet you only have 25 pages for this assignment. So let’s ask ourselves some questions about these “problems.”

  1. Who is having these problems? Students, parents, teachers, principals? Let’s  choose students.
  2. What problems? Academic? Disciplinary? Social? Let’s choose disciplinary, or behavioral, problems.

Good progress. Our initially broad topic--“problems in education”—is now handily narrowed to: Students’ Disciplinary Problems in Contemporary Southern California Public High Schools. This topic, which is now beginning to sound like the title of your research paper is considerably longer than when you first identified your topic. In fact, as you successfully limited your chosen topic, it indeed became longer and longer. This is natural.

The more exact, the more precise, your topic becomes, the more words you need to describe it. This is logical: by stating exactly what your topic will be in your 25-page research paper, you’re serving notice to the readers that this—and only this!—is what your paper will discuss.

At this point, you have a working title to get you started on your research paper. However, there is still room for improvement: that is, the topic can still be narrowed a bit more. But once you have your narrowed topic, or research paper title, adequately identified, the next step involves asking the two most crucial, analytical of the “5 W’s and the H”:  Why? How?

The Final Narrowing Questions

Asking those two questions—Why? How?—takes you to the second step of starting a quality research paper. These two questions require you to analyze, to think deeply about your chosen topic. They require you to think seriously about “cause and effect.” Answering these questions will now require you to express a strong, educated opinion about why and/or how your chosen topic is the way you believe it is.

And that takes us to the second very important step you must take in writing a quality, effective research paper: identifying your RESEARCH THESIS, or Research Hypothesis.  Read on for my next Writing Tip.

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