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Information Power/Refining Your Topic*
The refining or narrowing process begins as soon as you select a topic. It will continue until the last draft is written. Refining the topic is not a step in the process but an ongoing effort. Research is a dynamic activity. When you refine your research topic, you are building a scaffolding that is both flexible and disposable. As you learn from your different sources, you will modify your topic; information from some sources may cause you to tear down and rebuild. As you start, your topic may be a vague idea, just two or three words. As you learn more, your understanding changes; as your understanding changes, so will your topic. There are several further steps to consider, however, once you have chosen a topic and must now refine it.
STEP ONE) Make sure it is something worth doing. "Is the topic a good research topic?" Is it an important question? A project may be something you have to do, but it should also be something of value. Your thesis should be original. It is a waste of your time and the time of your instructor just to rehash things said many times before or to dwell on the obvious. Being original does not mean you have to discover a new law of nature. It means using a fresh approach to a subject or taking your own position on an issue.
STEP TWO) Write something down. Writing something down, even a single sentence, can help you think clearly. As you continue to refine the topic, the sentence may grow to a paragraph or an outline. Moving your ideas from your head to a piece of paper or onto a computer screen will force you to think about the topic. Writing forces you to abandon vague notions or fuzzy thinking and helps you produce a clear, coherent thought.
STEP THREE) Focus, focus, focus. Once you have started with a general concept you need to limit your topic to put it in focus. There are any number of ways in which you can do this. They include, but, of course, are not limited to those old five W's: Who, What, When, Where, and Why
STEP FOUR) Think of questions that you would want your research to address. Asking questions about your topic will give you a direction for your focus. The library may have thousands of sources for you to sort through. Knowing what questions you want to address will help determine which sources are the most relevant for you to use.
STEP FIVE ) Consider the whole project. You should consider all the steps involved through to the final draft. Keeping in mind all that you have to do for each part of the project should give you a better idea how to refine your topic, whether the topic is researchable, how broad or narrow to make it.
STEP SIX) Stay true to your focus as you continue to refine your topic. Keeping a clear focus in mind will help you sort through and evaluate sources. Based on what you learn, you will change and refine your topic. Your focus should guide you as you make these changes. Research is not compiling little piles of unconnected facts. A clear focus will help tie your ideas together and allow you build a cohesive unit.
*John Henderson, Ithaca College Library
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