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The Research Process

Broadening/Narrowing Your Topic

According to the Dartmouth Writing Program this is what you should do:

Broadening Your Topic

What happens when you've put your thoughts in a nutshell and they seem too "small"? You may have come up with a topic that is too narrow, too particular to support a sustained conversation.

Say, for example, that you've noticed that a novelist likes to talk about lipstick. He describes his characters as they put on lipstick. He allows his characters to leave lipstick stains on glasses. He talks about different shades of lipstick and how they reflect different moods.

You've collected some passages from the novel, and you think that you can write an essay that chronicles the use of lipstick as a metaphor in this story. But it's not enough simply to chronicle the appearance of lipstick in the novel - first it appears in chapter one, then it appears in chapter four, and so on. Instead, you have to make some declaration about what this recurring image means.

After writing your discovery draft, you come up with the idea that the writer uses lipstick to call attention to the fact that the characters are trying to mask their feelings. While this observation is a promising one, it still isn't "big" enough. Why not? Because it remains an observation, not an argument; it lists howA and B and C mask their feelings without addressing the matter of whythis masking is important to consider. How do you broaden your topic so that you feel that you have something important to say?

  • Do the characters rely on other ways of masking themselves? Is the issue of masking one of the novel's central themes? In what other ways does the writer explore the idea of masking?

    First, try to make connections.

  • Second, turn your idea inside out.

    Consider the other side of the matter. For example, lipstick might be part of a character's mask, but it also calls attention to that character. Lipstick doesn't give her a mask to hide behind; instead it screams, "Hey! Look at me!" This is interesting. Perhaps the character exaggerates certain qualities in order to hide others? Is this sleight of hand (reveal/conceal) at work elsewhere in the novel?
  • Third, consider the context.

    There are of course at least two contexts to consider: the context withinthe novel, and the context without.
    • Within the novel, you might seek a context for lipstick. What's happening, exactly, when the characters put lipstick on? Is this act presented by the author as being positive or negative? What values does the novel assert, and how does the use of lipstick reflect or challenge these values? What is the novel's theme, and how does lipstick reflect or challenge that?
    • Other contexts exist outside the novel. Consider, for instance, the author's other works. Is masking an important issue there? Or consider some of the cultural forces at work here. What larger social issue might the author be pointing to? Finally, the act of masking is an ancient one. What can you find out about the history of masking that is relevant to the matter at hand?

All of these questions might help you to broaden your topic so that your discussion is substantial and interesting.