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English 120 Communication Skills: Writing

A guide to library resources and research for ENG110, 120, and 122 students

Choosing a Topic

1. Brainstorm possible topic ideas

  • Consider your personal interests.
  • Engage in conversations in class or with classmates.
  • Read articles in encyclopedias and review class readings.
  • Browse recent issues of print or electronic journals or magazines.
  • Browse the shelves for books on your subject.

2.  Review assignment requirements

  • What kind of assignment is it - a 5-minute oral presentation, 3-page, or 10-page paper?
  • How much information do you need?
  • Does it need to be recent information?
  • What types of publications do you want to read - newspaper articles, books, journal articles, diaries, trade publications?
  • What formats do you need - visual, audio, printed, electronic?
  • Is the "point of view" a factor? Do you need opinions?
  • How much time do you have?

3.  List keyword to define your topic

  • State your research topic as a question.
  • Think about the significant terms, concepts, and keywords that describe your topic. These terms will become the keywords for searching in library catalogs, online databases, and other resources.

4. Gather background information on your topic

It's hard to get started if you don't know much about your topic.  Do some general reading in things like encyclopedias, such as Gale eBooks, to get an overview of the topic.  This is also a great first step towards refining your topic.
For a more comprehensive overview of the research process, see the Introduction to the Research Process page of the Research Essentials research guide.
Adapted from Duke University Libraries  (Thanks to Duke librarians)

Preliminary Research

Once you've decided on the topic, formulate your thesis statement, argument, or research question and begin finding information. Preliminary searching can assist you in narrowing your topic.

A good starting place is an encyclopedia, such as Gale eBooks. This resource will familiarize you with the subject and give you some background information. After reading the information, you will have a broad general topic and have begun to gather good keywords. The next step will be to turn this broad topic into a narrower topic, discussed below. 


Other databases to browse for ideas on current or controversial topics:

Librarians are happy to help your research. You can visit the Research Desk or contact a librarian using the Contact a Librarian page.

Refining Your Topic

Too much information?  Consider narrowing your topic to make your results list more manageable.  Less, but more relevant, information is key.  Here are some options to consider when narrowing the scope of your paper:

  • Aspect  or sub-area: Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning.
  • Time: Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group: Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue. For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.
  • Theoretical approach: Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding the high rate of failures in animal cloning.

     Adapted from MIT Libraries Selecting a Research Topic Overview,
      Licensed under the Creative Commons  Attribution Non-Commercial License


More Suggestions:

  • State your topic in the form of a research question or thesis statement.
  • Ask "how" or "why" questions rather than who, what, when, and where questions or yes/no questions.
  • Use specific words, i.e., use poetry instead of literature.
  • Add more than one keyword  to your search. Use the Boolean connector AND to narrow your search; AND retrieves documents which include both terms in the search such as "gun control" AND "second amendment"
  • When searching for books or articles, look at the subject field in the record.  Click on it to see a list of subtopics and narrower terms.

If you're finding too few resources, consider broadening your topic. Think of related ideas, or read some background information first.  You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including:​​

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything of value to have been written. If you're researching a breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively. 
  • You have not checked enough databases for information. Find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic.  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.

     Adapted from MIT Libraries Selecting a Research Topic Overview,,
     Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License


More Suggestions:

  • Use broader or more general search terms to describe your topic. For example, use "bioethics" instead of a specific issue like "stem cell research.
  • Find alternative words. Search with synonyms. For example, instead of "teenagers" use "adolescents" or "teens" or "young adults."--Use fewer keywords in your search.
  • Use the Boolean connector OR to broaden your search. OR means more; it will search for either term in a search statement such as private OR public education.
  • Try truncating your terms to include all variant endings of your keyword, such as legal* gives you legal, legalize, legalizes, legality, and legalization.