Know which subject your topic comes from. When you search for information, you will often need to work from the general to the more specific. Once you know what subject you're writing about, you can consult your textbook, an encyclopedia, current periodicals, or browse the shelves in the library to get an idea of what topic you would like to focus on.
Goldilocks and the Three Topics: Too broad, too narrow, or just right? After you come up with a question you'd like to answer, think about how feasible it will be to answer it within the confines of the assignment.
Example 1: The Civil War. This topic is too broad.
Unless you're planning on writing your own encyclopedia, there's way too much information here to fit into a paper. If you do a search for "Civil War" in our catalog our online databases, you will find 10,000 things written about it. Try to focus on a particular aspect of the Civil War, such as:
What economic factors lead to the Civil War?
What role did free northern African-Americans play in the Civil War?
Example 2 : A study of trees. Way too broad.
What aspect of trees are you talking about? Their biology? Their role in the environment? Sap? The lumber industry? There are thousands of different directions you could take this topic.
What are the healing powers of tree bark?
Should the lumber industry be given more restrictions or more freedom?
Example 3 : Does yelling at young football players motivate them? This is probably too narrow.
Assuming you could find any study that dealt specifically with youth football and yelling, you certainly wouldn't find much. In these cases, you may want to expand your terms. Think of synonyms or related words:
Yelling could be expanded to negative reinforcement or verbal abuse
football could be expanded to sports in general.
You'd be more likely to find information dealing with verbal abuse and youth sports, or younger athletes and motivation.
Example 4 : Everything you ever wanted to know about the exploding toilets, but were afraid to ask. Definitely too narrow.
I'm not up to date on the exploding toilet literature out there, but I'm assuming there's not a whole lot of it. You'd have to come up with some broader concepts for exploding toilets, such as plumbing accidents, or exploding objects, or, if it's just a rumor, something like urban legends.
Your topic may change as you find (or don't find) more information.
Make sure to clear any topic with the instructor before getting too far along in your research!