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Selecting a Topic and Doing the Research

When a professor assigns a written report, technical writing paper or other writing assignment there is usually some degree of choice left up to the student to refine and define specifically what the subject will be or what direction the paper will take. Sometimes the instructor will require that the exact topic of the report or paper be submitted for approval before research and writing commences. Whether or not your topic must be approved in advance, you want to choose a topic you believe will be acceptable to the instructor and one that you think can hold your interest as you proceed through the research steps and on to the writing. If you are going to put the effort into researching something, do your best to make it something you actually would like to know more about. At the same time, you want to choose a topic that you are relatively certain will have plenty of easily attainable information available to research.

You want to end up with a paper that covers your topic in depth. In order to do that you are going to have to narrow your focus to correspond with what is being asked of you. If you are being asked to turn in a twenty page paper and you decide your topic will be "The Role of General Eisenhower during World War II," you have an immediate problem. You cannot condense that subject matter down to twenty pages and have any depth to it. Maybe you want to focus it down considerably and write about Eisenhower's contribution to the D-Day invasion. If you get it too narrow, such as "General Eisenhower's Eating Patterns the Two Days before D-Day," you may have trouble filling two pages. I doubt the good General had much of an appetite. Think carefully about the breadth of your topic and how much there is to write about it.

Once your topic is selected and approved you are ready for some good old-fashioned library time. You will want to see what may be available from books and magazine and newspaper articles relative to your subject. Index cards and notes are an important part of library research. You may also want to do some research online to see what may be available to you on the Internet. Writing notes and information on index cards gives you the flexibility of moving them around in groupings to best accommodate your outline. Remember that you will need to be able to document where each bit of information was found, so make notes on your cards in order to create a bibliography later. Your library has manuals on creating a bibliography if you need help.

Once you have gathered all of the information you think you need to complete your report, you can begin your outlining process. This will involve some shuffling of index cards. It may also involve printing out information that you have stored on the computer. Separate cards and other information into groups containing common or complementing information. Then try to put them into some logical sequence deciding which should come first and what should follow. You are then prepared to start your written outline. You may want to do this on the word processor of the computer which will give you the luxury of being able to cut and paste and move details around in different groupings.

Last Updated: 08/20/2013


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