Image depicting Marvel superhero The Thing (who is very big) with an arrow spanning its torso to represent a topic that is too broad.

Often a topic is too broad for a research assignment. For example, the topic of superheroes has so much to research you could write a book about it (e.g. The politics of the Marvel cinematic universe).

Narrowing your topic

Try one of these techniques to narrow your big ideas into a manageable topic:  

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The 5 Ws technique

Answer the following questions to help you focus and understand your topic.

  • Who cares about your topic?
  • What are some things that influence or are influenced by your topic?
  • Where is your topic relevant?
  • Why is your topic important? 
  • When in time was/is your topic relevant?
Image showing the 5W's: Who what where why when.

Free form writing technique (aka pre writing)

Free form writing help you collect your early thoughts and ideas about a topic. It is based on the idea that writing is really just thinking.

  • write continuously for about 10 or 15 minutes
  • don't worry about spelling or grammar

This will result in raw text that won’t be part of your paper. You will figure out what you know - and what you want to investigate further.

an image of paper with writing on it. The writing represents quickly free form writing on the topic of superheroes.

(Also, this strategy can be used anytime to overcome writer’s block!)

Mind map technique

A mind map is a visual method of exploring a topic:

  1. start with a pen and paper, whiteboard, website, or app that makes mind maps 
  2. write your topic in the center
  3. next, write:
    • subtopics
    • related concepts
    • questions you have about the topic
    • words or ideas
  4. connect these subtopics to the center you created in step 2
  5. finally, narrow by highlighting or drawing a circle around a subset of subtopics
    • for example, our mind map explores the topic of superheroes. We narrow our topic to superheroes, gender roles, sexualized, female, stereotypes.
two images connect with an arrow. The first is a mind map exploring the topic of superheroes. An arrow shows our progress in narrowing to only a few suptopics.

Pick one, try it out. Does it work for you?