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Image: James Allen, Nella Larsen, 1928. Library of Congress, Harmon Foundation Records, Manuscript Division.
Choosing a topic often feels like an impossible first step. It can be helpful to keep your initial topic ideas broad, and then begin honing in on your research question as you encounter new research materials. It is often through the process of research itself that one discovers a research topic.
There is no correct way to do research, but the following guidelines might be useful to keep in mind as you begin:
After gathering your background information, refine your initial topic and question based off of what you learned. A good rule of thumb: if there is an entire book on your topic, it is too broad for a research paper. On the other hand, if the topic can be discussed in a few paragraphs, then it is too narrow.
Example: "The role of women in the plays of Shakespeare" is too broad because hundreds of books and articles have been written on this topic; "The symbolism of Ariel's costume in the Tempest" is likely too narrow because there are not enough books and articles discussing this specific detail.
Remember, don't worry if refining your topic happens more than once!
Keywords are terms that describe the topic you are researching. Keywords can be a people, places, things, ideas, or concepts. We need keywords to effectively search in library academic databases (like CLIO or Jstor). Unlike internet browsers, which have developed to understand full questions written in natural language, academic databases use keywords to locate resources.
There are no perfect searches when using keywords, which is why it's useful to brainstorm lots of related terms and/or synonyms to locate what you are looking for. For example, we might use the word "teenager" to describe a particular population, but the term "youth" might be used in a database instead. You can also find new keywords once you begin searching in the content section and subject sections of a catalog entry.