How to Narrow Your Topic
"I'm writing a paper on World War II."
Often students start their research with a very general topic, even though they may realize the topic is too large to deal with in a 10-15 page paper. Faculty and librarians tell them, "You have to narrow this down." But how do you narrow a topic?
- What discipline am I working in? If you are in a sociology class, ask a sociological question about World War II, like "How did WWII affect women?" If it's a political science class, your question might be something like "How did WWII affect presidential elections in the US?"
- What are some subsets or aspects of your topic. Some good aspects are:
- by place, such as a country or region
- by time period, such as a century, decade or year
- by population, such as men, women, ethnic group, youth, children or elderly
You can combine these ideas, "What were the major impacts of WWII on women in France, in the decade after the war?"
More ideas in our brief tutorial on topic selection and narrowing.
Guide to writing history papers
Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students
A comprehensive but easy-to-skim web guide to writing history papers. Recommended by History Dept faculty.
Ask a Librarian 24/7 Chat
You can type your question directly into this chat window to chat with a librarian. Your question may be answered by a reference librarian from Berkeley, from another UC campus, or another academic library elsewhere in the US. We share information about our libraries to make sure you get good answers.
If the librarian can't answer you well enough, your question will be referred to a Berkeley librarian for follow-up.
Have fun chatting!
Research Advisory Service
Research Advisory Service for Cal Undergraduates
Book a 30-minute appointment with a librarian who will help refine and focus research inquiries, identify useful online and print sources, and develop search strategies for humanities and social sciences topics (examples of research topics).
Schedule, view, edit or cancel your appointment online (CalNetID required)
This service is for Cal undergraduates only. Graduate students and faculty should contact the library liaison to their department or program for specialized reference consultations.
What is This? Reading Citations...
Finding a citation in a bibliography (online or in print) is a great way to find more resources on your topic.
However, you have to be able to read the citation in order to find the item in the UCB Library.
The most common citations are for books, articles, and book chapters. Can you tell which citation below is for a book? For a chapter? For an article?
- Orbe, Mark P. "Representations of Race in Reality TV: Watch and Discuss." Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.4 (2008): 345-352.
- Winters, Loretta I., and Herman L. DeBose. New Faces in a Changing America: Multiracial Identity in the 21st Century. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc., 2003.
- Fine, Michelle, and Adrienne Asch. “Disability Beyond Stigma: Social Interaction, Discrimination, and Activism.” The Culture and Psychology reader. Eds. Goldberger, Nancy Rule; Veroff, Jody Bennet New York: New York University Press. 1995. 536-558
Library Workshop: Research 101
Unsure how to start a paper or research project? Think maybe you could stand to brush up on search strategies?
If this sounds familiar, Library Workshop: Research 101 has you covered. This interactive tutorial explores six stages of the research process. You can view it from start to finish, or focus on specific sections as needed:
Starting strategies, from choosing a topic to finding the right keywords.
The publication timeline, scholarly vs. popular sources, and differences in academic disciplines.
Search for books and other items in OskiCat, Cal's local library catalog.
Locate and access articles in library research databases.
How to cite your sources correctly.
Common techniques for constructing searches that yield useful results.
Specialized search strategies for targeting specific topics.