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How to Research a Topic

Use these steps to research a topic and document your sources.

Choose a Topic

Library Databases
These databases can help you choose a topic:


These websites offer some ideas for topics and can help you brainstorm some topics:

Focus Your Topic

NARROW your topic if it's too general. Limit your topic by focusing on a particular aspect:

  • timeframe (the first year of the war)
  • category of people (plantation owners, slaves, factory workers, etc.)
  • specific event (Battles at Appomatox, Antietam, etc.)
  • place (Memphis, the South, Appalachia, etc.)
Another solution: add another topic to your original topic. For instance: "music and the Civil War" or "religion and the Civil War"

B R O A D E N  your topic if it's too specific. For instance, you might have trouble finding information about hazing in Southern fraternities.

Expand your topic:

  • look for parallels and wider categories (peer pressure among college students)
  • choose an alternate focus (drug and alcohol use instead of hazing)
  • choose an alternate place (the entire United States instead of the South)
  • choose an alternate person or group (fraternities and sororities, young adults, etc.)

Develop Keywords

Step 1: List the key concepts that describe your topic (look at words in your essay question or research topic).


  • If this is your question: Describe the different variations of the Cinderella story that exist across cultures.
  • Then these are your keywords: cinderella, variations, cultures


Step 2: List synonyms or related terms (check an encyclopedia to find related terms, and a thesaurus to find synonyms).

fairy tales, folk tales
TIP: While doing your research, keep a list of keywords and related terms handy. Try different combinations of words in your searches, and you'll get better results.

Plough Library · Christian Brothers University
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