Research Paper Basics

Choosing a Research Paper Topic

College-level research papers are different from papers you may have written before. Let's suppose you have decided to write about the U.S. Constitution. Here are some examples which will not work:

Choosing a topic: best practices

A good topic is limited.

A good general rule is "the tighter, the better." This will allow you to go deep within your limited paper length, and you will have some idea when you have covered the topic thoroughly. One possible example for a Constitution paper would be "The changing status of African-Americans in the U.S. Constitution."

A good topic can be supported with outside material.

If your topic is so new or so obscure that you cannot find research material by the end of the course, it's not a good topic. After all, you want to produce a paper and get a high grade. Concerning the topic I mentioned above, a lot of research material is available on the disputes between slave-holding states and non-slave states during the writing of the Constitution, and you could easily find material which discusses the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 24th amendments.

Note on finding outside material: You want your reading to be balanced. If the only reading you do (or, for some topics, the only reading available) is extremely biased and/or unscientific, you will not produce a good paper. If the only material you bring on the "Africans in the Constitution" paper is Nazi or white supremacist, you will get—and deserve—a very poor grade.

A good topic leads to an argumentative edge.

This is why "The American government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial" is a poor topic. Nobody can disagree with it. It will be dull to write and dull to read—like a footnote in a textbook. Go for something which a reasonable, educated person might disagree with (or at least need some convincing). Perhaps "From the beginning of our country, we have had difficulty resolving the discord between 'All men are created equal' and the legal status of African-Americans according to our Constitution."

More information

For a further discussion, go to A Writer's Reference §R1-b "Pose questions worth exploring"

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Revised 1/4/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: