Writing a Research Paper: Narrowing Your Subject

The purpose of engaging in subject-narrowing techniques is to help you to devise a tentative research question - a question that will guide your further research.

Writing a Research Paper: Narrowing your Subject: Working Definitions

One narrowing technique is to identify possible working definitions for aspects of your topic, and then to develop from these definitions a tentative research question for which you feel you would be interested in/capable of finding answers.


  • Broad Subject: "The Public Portrayal of 'Standard' Language"
  • Preliminary Focus: "Issues raised by the public portrayal of standard versus non-standard language"
Aspects of topic Narrower working defintions
Issues * educational
* theoretical
* social
Public Portrayal * television
* radio
* newspapers
* literature
* recording industry
* primary / elementary school textbooks
* high school textbooks
Standard * English
* French
* Spanish
Non-Standard * Hispanic- American
* Southern (?)
* African- American ("Ebonics")
Language * grammatical rules
* vocabulary
* spoken performance
* listening ability
* reading ability
* written performance

As an example, from this chart you could narrow your focus to the following tentative research question(s):

"What social problems might be created by newspaper portrayals of Ebonics versus standard English - and on which aspects of language do these newspaper portrayals focus?"

By creating such a chart with which to isolate some of the various possible "working definitions" within your topic, you might now be able to decide, for example, to focus on social issues raised by newspaper portrayals of spoken English versus Ebonics in the United States. Obviously, this is a far narrower and more manageable focus than the "preliminary focus" listed above!




Free Writing

A third narrowing technique is to engage in some free-writing. That is, to try working through some of your ideas on paper by writing them out without regard for spelling, grammar, or even for relevance and logic, to see if by so doing you can discover some kernel of interest, significance, or meaning to pursue (or some problem that needs to be further-researched in order to be resolved).