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History

A guide to researching and writing history at Wheaton College.

3 Steps to Topic

One of the most important steps in preparing for a successful paper or project is finding a good topic. Asking "how" or "why" questions about things you have seen or experienced can help lead you to good research topic.

A good topic will be:

  • Clear
  • Focused
  • Appropriately Complex

Here are three steps that can help you arrive at a good topic that will enable you to produce a successful paper or project. 

Step 1.  Brainstorm

Take out a blank piece of paper, or, open up a new document on your computer and begin to list all of the areas or ideas that are of interest to you.

  • Have your recently read or seen a news story or article that raised questions or concerns?
  • Have you, or someone you know, experienced a situation or change that exemplifies a larger phenomenon?
  • Is there something in a class or lecture that sparked your interest?

You may want to scan a subject encyclopedia or topic companion (e.g. The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America or the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East & North Africa, or the Oxford Companion to United States History). The resources can help familiarize you with various topics, about which you may have an interest, and will provide useful background information, terminology, and additional bibliographic resources.

Step 2. Scan the academic literature for articles and books related to the idea(s) that you have identified.

Begin to search the library's catalog and databases to see what has already been written about the idea(s) you have identified. This is where your keywords and background information will come in handy. Use these keywords to broaden and refine your search. Once you have found several articles or books related to your topic, take some time to carefully skim their arguments and conclusions. 

This step can also help you better understand what Buswell Library holds in their local collections in support of your research. Before you become fully set on your topic, it is wise to ensure that the library can provide you with enough primary and secondary resources to support your entire project.

Step 3. Focus your information to formulate an argument

Once you have begun to identify ideas of interest and how much (or little) they have been studied and written about, you can being to make decisions about how you might refine your ideas and assemble your information findings into meaningful answers.

Consider asking yourself the following questions as you begin to narrow your ideas into arguments.

  •  What?
    • What is this essay really about? What is my central argument or conclusion? What do I really want to say to the reader?
  • Why?
    • Why am I writing this essay? Everyone chooses a topic for a reason - what is yours?  
  • Who?
    • For whom is this essay written? Obviously, your instructor will be reading your final draft, but consider going beyond this consideration to think carefully about your audience. How will you take into account a reader who is unfamiliar with this topic? Or, what difference might it make in your writing if you try to take into account differences among potential readers. Writing with a particular reader in mind may well help you to sharpen and focus your argument(s) or conclusion(s).

Step 4: Begin Your Search

Once you have refined your idea, you are ready to begin your search for sources.