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Columbia: Choosing a Topic

Creating a Thesis

From The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison:

A thesis statement . . .

  • Makes an argumentative assertion about a topic; it states the conclusions that you have reached about your topic.

  • Makes a promise to the reader about the scopepurpose, and direction of your paper.

  • Is focused and specific enough to be "proven" within the boundaries of your paper.

  • Is generally located near the end of the introduction; sometimes, in a long paper, the thesis will be expressed in several sentences or in an entire paragraph.

  • Identifies the relationships between the pieces of evidence that you are using to support your argument.

Not all papers require thesis statements! Ask your instructor if you're in doubt whether you need one.

©2014 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

Picking A Topic

When choosing a topic, ask yourself the following questions:

·         Why do I want to research & write about this topic?

o   Is it personal? Do you have a loved one with a condition, such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes, and you want to learn more about it?

o   Curious about something you’ve seen or read? Perhaps something from the news?

·         What do I already know about it?

o   What you know already is a good starting point to branch out from. From here you can go to specifics or find more general information.

o   It’s OK if your answer to this is “nothing”! That’s what research is for.

·         What areas of knowledge does it fall into?

o   What subject category does this fall under? Start with a broad category, such as "medical", then start moving to a subject specialty, such as "catheterization"

o   If you’re not sure what it’s classified under, ask! Some things may be under multiple classifications/subject areas.

·         How specific do you want your paper to be?

o  How far will you go with it? Do you want to write a book or just a few pages? This will decide how much information is needed.

o  Are you just interested in a particular county or state, or do you want to write about a country or even the entire world? 

o  Start with the general and move to the more specific.  For instance, start with Medical and then go to the nervous system, and then into specific nerve disorders.

o  How much information is available? This is where the LRC, local libraries, the Internet, databases, etcetera come in.

Useful Links

Narrowing and Broadening A Topic

NOTE: For the purpose of these examples I'm not actually using the quotation marks in Google while searching. I'm just usign them to seperate search terms from everything else.  Quotation marks in Google tells it you want a specific phrase, which could be very useful and will give different results. 


NOTE: There are many resources available in addition to Google, such as databases, journals, etc. Be sure to ask your librarian for help!



A topic that is too broad won't allow you to give the necessary details requested (or desired), but rather just allows for a brief overview of the topic at large. There will also be, in general, an overwhelming amount of information available.  For instance, if you have a 3 page paper to write about a specific area of health care, a quick Google search gives over 700, 000, 000 results. That's a lot of information! 

If your topic gives too many results or won't elt you squeeze the information into the alloted space, consider narrowing the topic. In other words, make it more specific. Let's take a look at this process using our example above.

Search terms

Number of results


health care


Way too broad! Lots of information. Where do I even start?

health care reform


Getting better, but that's still a lot of info. 

Let's sift through some of that and see if we can get more specific.

health care reform in South Carolina


Still a lot of hits, but getting more manageable.

Is there an area of SC health care reform that we'd like to learn more about? There seem to be several results about the Affordable Care Act Initiatives for South Carolina, let's try that.

affordable care act initiatives South Carolina


451, 000 is much more manageable than 781, 000, 000!

We may have to narrow down our topic even further, but at least we have somewhere to start that isn't totally overwhelming. 


By narrowing down we've made it so we can get a better idea of where we want to go!


While you usually wind up narrowing a topic more often than broadening, sometime what you want is either too specific as there simply aren't enough sources (data) to really write a good paper. There may not be enough to even complete the assignment! While a paper can be padded out, it becomes quickly apparent when an author is just taking up space. This your paper dull and boring. Also, your instructor might not want something overly narrow. 

Let's look at an example where broadening a topic is needed:

We'll choose "the effect of mercury in the catfish population of the Saluda River in Columbia, SC between 1990 and 1995" as our topic. This sounds like a good topic. It's specific, and data should be available. 

We'll use the topic as a search term in Google. This gives us 3, 380 results.  However, those are just search engine results. We'll have to start sifting through them to see what's really applicable to our topic. The 4th result seems to have something we can use at first, but turns out to be a reference to a study from 1977. That's too old. Several other studies mention mercury, but not specific to our topic. While the information may be out there, it seems as if we would have to dive deep to get it, pouring through several records at government offices, and we simply don't have time for that.

It's time to broaden our topic!

Let's break down our topic into key words or ideas:

catfish                  mercury                  Saluda River                 Columbia, SC               1990-1995

What if we just searched for "fish mercury Saluda River Columbia, SC"? 

103,000 results! The first and second pages have results from newspapers, government offices, and studies. This looks promising. While the results still need to be examined to make sure, it looks as if we may have found our topic. 

Just in case, what if we searched for "mercury river South Carolina"? 2,300,000 results are given. Many are not specific to the Saluda River. While it might be a good topic for another paper or class, in this case our search has become too broad and will require narrowing back down. 


In summary:

Search terms

Number of results


the effect of mercury in the catfish population of the Saluda River in Columbia, SC between 1990 and 1995

3, 380

Possibly too narrow except for very specific studies. Will require wading through a lot of paperwork/results and possibly going to local fish & wildlife offices just to find enough to write about.

fish mercury Saluda River Columbia, SC

103, 000

This looks promising. There seems to be more information available about the topic and it doesn’t ask for one particular species. More research is required, but it’s a good place to start.

mercury river South Carolina


Too broad for what we are wanting; which is about mercury and fish in a specific river. For another paper/class it might be a good topic, but for now it’s too general.



NOTE: Results were collected 06/14 and may have changed since that time.

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