A collection of databases, books and links relating to art history and practice

Selecting A Topic

Getting Started

Picking a topic for your research paper can be a little tricky. This page is meant to help you select something that will both interest you and be academically suitable.

First, let's define what a research paper is. Your instructor will be asking you to write a brief paper on some issue about which there is some level of disagreement, or lack of knowledge. You wouldn't write about a paper about the sun being hot, for example, because there is no reasonable disagreement about the topic. So you will need to select a topic in which you can do research and discuss in a relatively short number of pages. It will be important to make sure your topic is neither too broad for a short paper, nor too narrow, which will prevent you from finding good sources to support your thesis.

To start, you will need to know what your instructor is requesting in the terms of the assignment. The assignment may be completely open-ended, or there may be a given topic that you will work with.

Refining an Assigned Topic

For example: An instructor gives you an assignment to write about Edgar Allan Poe and how he relates to modern culture.

A good way to begin refining a topic like this is to think about the topic in a way that interests you and meets the parameters of the assignment. So let’s say you like detective shows. One possibility for a paper would be to talk about Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin and how he was a forerunner of the modern detective characters in your favorite shows.  In this way, you are both keeping on-topic and relating it to something in which you have interest.


In all cases, making the topic relevant to your interests will make the process more enjoyable, and contribute to a stronger finished product!

Choosing an Open Topic

Now let’s say that the instructor has given you complete freedom to pick any topic at all. While it can be nice to write about anything that captures your interest, it can also be a daunting task to pick and narrow down one topic from the infinite possibilities. Here are a couple suggestions to create a manageable topic:

  1. The best strategy is to find a topic that interests you. Since the instructor hasn’t narrowed one down for you already, the key is to find an aspect of the issue that you can successfully write about in the assigned length of the paper. For example, if you were interested in climate change, it would be difficult to write about the whole subject in just a few pages. Focusing on an aspect of it that is important to you will ease the writing process. See the 'Adjusting Your Topic' tab for more information.

  1. If you can’t think of a topic that interests you, our databases can give you a starting point to find defined topics that have related articles to support your paper.

Our Gale Opposing Viewpoints in Context (login required) database has articles related to many of the major issues that are debated today, such as gun control, euthanasia, etc. The articles are organized in a “Pro and Con” style format, and broken down by type of publication or data source – from Academic Journals to Newspapers, statistical reports, etc.

The CQ Researcher (login required) database is another resource that contains material on major questions of the day. The pages are organized into sections such as overview, chronology, Pro and Con, etc. The important thing to remember, if you decide to use one of these articles as a beginning point, is to put your own perspective on the material, so you don’t end up simply repeating what others have said. And it is always important to give proper credit to those whose ideas and words you draw from. See our Plagiarism article for more information.

Adjusting your topic  

Once you’ve selected your topic and started to write, you may need to alter it in different ways. As we noted above, picking a topic that is too broad can make it difficult to give a thorough treatment. Alternately, if your topic is too narrow, there may not be many relevant articles or books to use in support of your paper.  This is a normal part of the writing process, so don’t be discouraged if you do need to adjust!

If you find that your topic is too broad, consider limiting it in a number of ways:

  • Physical space (for example, climate change as it affects Africa)
  • Time (climate change as measured from a start date to an end date)
  • A particular dimension of the topic (average rainfall over time)

If your topic is too narrow, you can expand outward to include more concepts under the paper’s umbrella. For instance, pretend you wanted to write about a flood that happened in Mohave County but don’t find any obvious materials about it. You could break up the idea into its component parts. As one approach, you could identify:

  • Floods
  • Desert areas
  • Rural areas
  • Emergency response
  • Displacement of local populations,
  • And many more possibilities.


Finding synonyms, broader terms, narrower terms for your key concepts will help you.

When you have thought of concepts like these, you can add or replace these keywords for use in your database searching.

You should notice an improvement in the number of results you obtain!

Topic Tutorial Video Created by the USCSB Library. Used under Creative Commons License CC-BY