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Deciding When a Topic is too...


A topic is too broad when you find that you have too many different ideas or resources about that topic. While you want to start the writing process with as many ideas as possible, you will want to narrow your focus at some point so that you aren't attempting to do too much in one essay.

Here are ways to make your result list less in quantity, but still high in relevence:

  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  Example. if your topic concerns vaccines, examine the theories surrounding of the rate of failures in vaccines.
  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  Example, if your topic is vaccines, investigate government regulations of vaccines.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  Example, on a topic on vaccines, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's vs. the 2000's.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  Example, on a topic on vaccines, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical Location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.  Example, if your topic concerns vaccines, investigate vaccine practices in Africa or the Middle East.


A topic is too narrow if you can't find any information about it.  Though student writers most often face the challenge of limiting a topic that is too broad, they occasionally have to recognize that they have chosen a topic that is too narrow or that they have narrowed a workable topic too much.  If your topic is so narrowed and focused, it can become too academic or pedantic.  If your topic is too narrow, try making it broader by asking yourself related questions.

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for.  Example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written. If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • Use different databases.  Use the Library catalog to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.  Remember if you need help finding databases or techniques, contact a librarian.
  • Change the Words.  Are you using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic?  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.


Selecting a topic can be the most difficult part of doing research. Defining and refining your topic is an ongoing process. Be prepared to change the focus of your topic as you gather more information. How you select your topic will depend also on what your instructor has specified.

These are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Interesting: Select a subject you can get interested in. Since you will be spending a considerable amount of time researching your topic, you will want it to be something that holds your interest and that of the reader.
  • Focus: Make sure that your topic isn't too narrow or too vague. If the topic is too broad, you will be overwhelmed with information. If the topic is too narrow, you may not be able to find enough information for your research paper. A good first step is trying to ask a question about your topic to give you both a focus and structure.

Broad topic: anorexia --> Focused topicWhat is the relationship between women's fashion magazines and anorexia?

Your research question should be opened ended, will guide you in further research, and will help you formulate your thesis.

(Westchester Community College, New York)

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