There are several ways to approach choosing a research topic. Your instructor might suggest or assign readings designed to help you think critically about important literary questions and themes. In such a scenario it would then be up to you, the researcher, to narrow down or refine the scope of the investigation. Senior undergraduates and especially graduate students might well be asked to investigate problems that remain unresolved in the critical literature.
The following techniques have been shown to help students move from having no topic or only a very broad and general topic to a manageable research question:
- Brainstorm: It often helps to begin by identifying synonyms for major concepts, e.g. "Magical Realism". At least a little brainstorming for concepts and keywords (or search terms) should obviously take place before attempting to search the Library Catalog for books or abstracting and indexing databases such as the MLA International Bibliography for journal articles.
- Mindmap: Mindmapping is a more structured kind of brainstorming. Mindmaps use visual cues such as color to help structure and link concepts, thoughts, and ideas. You might wish to view this brief video and then draw your own mindmap.
- Personal Interest: It might seem obvious, but concentrate your efforts on a topic that interests you personally. Personal interest increases motivation, which in turn often predicts success.
Additional library-centric techniques for reviewing the literature and choosing or refining a research topic:
- Citation (or Footnote) Chasing: A popular research technique in which the bibliographies of books and articles already located via a search of the secondary literature (or assigned by your instructor) are examined for additional sources. Books (monographs), journal articles, encyclopedia articles, dissertations and many other classes of information contain bibliographies. Footnote chasing as a technique is favored by many scholars but it is not the only or even most comprehensive method for reviewing the literature or choosing/narrowing your research topic.
- Search the Reference (or Tertiary) Literature: Tertiary sources are essentially reference works; they list, index, summarize, or in some other way facilitate access to both primary and secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources in literature include the encyclopedias listed in the Reference Shelf tab of this guide and the abstracting and indexing databases listed in the Find Articles, Criticisms, & Primary Works tab.
- Browse the Secondary Literature: Browse for possible research topics in the latest issue of a peer-reviewed journal in literary studies. This method can uncover important debates and unresolved issues within the discipline. Key journals are listed in the Find Journals tab of this guide. For investigations of a popular or current-interest nature, browsing general-interest periodicals -- magazines, newspapers, and/or websites -- can help spark ideas for possible research topics.