Skip to Main Content

Basic Research Guide

English 1000

Determining Your Topic

"Cubing" or The Action Verbs Technique

One way to move from a "vague idea" to a doable paper topic is to write your vague idea at the top of a page, and then, briefly:

  1. Describe it
  2. Compare it
  3. Associate it
  4. Analyze it
  5. Apply it
  6. Argue for/against it

Do any of these aspects seem especially useful with regard to your topic?  Do any common themes appear?  Keep going back to it as you read up on your topic:

Sources listed under Background Sources also make good places to get topic ideas.

Your paper's focus and thesis should strike you and your reader as interesting.  

Determining what is "interesting" depends on both topic and scholarly field, but it usually involves something the reader has some prior knowledge about, but with a twist: a previously unexplored aspect or an unexpected finding.  Another way to put it is that  interesting is the middle ground between obvious ("duh") and meaningless ("huh??").

One way to think about an interesting approach to your topic is to think of your topic in terms of a contrast:

Something that seems universal is actually true only within a culture (sociology, anthropology). Something that seems healthy is actually unhealthy (medicine, psychology). Something that seems new is actually similar to the past (history, politics). Something that seems just is actually unjust (ethics). Something that seems effective is actually ineffective. Something that seems insignificant is actually important. Something that seems simple is actually complex. Something that seems unrelated is actually related.
Any of the above patterns can work in reverse as well.

For example: Something that appears to be insignificant may turn out to be significant: "Contrary to popular belief, there is actually a significant relationship between stretching before exercise and reduction of injuries during exercise."

  • Certain modern technologies have created a world in which poverty is associated with obesity to an extent unimaginable before the Second World War.  (insignificant vs important; new vs. similar to past)
  • A growing body of research suggests that aerobic exercise not only improves physical health but enhances learning and even bolsters mental and emotional well-being. (simple vs complex, related vs unrelated)
  • While diet and exercise have an obvious impact on obesity, new research also shows that lack of sleep may also contribute to obesity. (simple vs complex, insignificant vs important)

More examples of thesis statements and how to write them:

Creating a Topic Search Strategy