Free association. Back away from the computer and take a few minutes to think freely about your topic. Write down aspects of the topic, related terms, broader and narrower terms, questions, and any other ideas that occur to you. What do you know already and what do you want to know?

Map it. Consider making a concept map (rather than a list) in order to help understand the relationships between terms and concepts. If you dig colored markers, this is the time to get them out. You can do this as a solo activity, but doing it in a group can both hasten and improve your thinking. Even if you are writing an individual paper, consider asking a friend or classmate to help you brainstorm. More minds think of more facets, and this can both hasten and improve your thinking.

Mind Map

Your concept map doesn't need to be fancy or done on the computer. It can be as simple as notebook paper and a pencil. The following two videos provide basic instruction in building a concept map of your own.

Video Source: "Concept Maps"

(2:30, Gettysburg College Musselman Library)

Video Source: "Concept Mapping: How to Start Your Term Paper Research"

(3:58, Douglas College)

Words matter. If you think of synonyms or related words that describe aspects of your topic, jot them down. These will be helpful later when you move to the computer. Examples:

Your search term Synonyms and related words
Teen(s) Teenager(s), adolescent(s), young adult(s), tween(s)
Depression Mental health, mood
College University, higher education


Disciplines matter. Consider which disciplines or subject areas have something to do with your topic. Sometimes it is helpful to answer the question "who cares?"

Example: Who cares about pollution?
• Biologists
• Environmental scientists / ecologists
• Urban planners
• Business people
• Health care workers
• Legislators and policymakers
• …and more!


Knowing which disciplines are already in conversation about your topic will help you know where to look for information.

In the form of a question, please. Now is the time to begin turning your TOPIC into a RESEARCH QUESTION. Pare your broad TOPIC down to a more specific RESEARCH QUESTION:

Narrowing Your Topic

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