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Tips on Writing a Research Paper: How to Identify a Topic Question for Essays and Research Papers

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

Teaching students how to identify a topic question establishes the foundation for writing effective thesis statements.

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    Tips on Writing a Research Paper: The Importance of a Topic Question

    I spent hours teaching thesis statements with only moderate improvement in essay quality. I went to the mountains without food or water to meditate on ways to improve student essays. After 3-hours without food I passed out (technically, I was beaten senseless by a couple of boy scouts with sling shots). I woke up in an ambulance. Instead of paramedics tending my wounds, there were question marks.

    "That's it," I thought, "The question marks are trying to tell me something about writing better thesis statements." I guessed what it could mean, but to no avail. Evantually the chief question mark picked up the ball underneath its arched body and bashed me over the head with it. When I awoke, there was a scar across my chest with the following words: "(1) identify a topic; (2) create a research topic question(s); (3) write the thesis statement."

    That made no sense, so I did some research. I discovered the question marks were right: the best way to write effective thesis statements is to identify a topic first and create a research topic to be answered by the thesis statement.

    I needed to find out the best way to make a research topic question. Here's what I found:

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    Tips on Writing a Research Paper: Elements of a Topic Question

    • A topic question asks a relevant and important question about the topic that is answered in an essay or research paper.
    • The topic question can be what other writers have already considered, but answered with a new spin.
      • Topic: Roe vs. Wade
      • Possible topic questions: (1) What are the negative/positive effects of the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling? (2) What effect would overturning the federal court's ruling have on teen pregnancy rates? (3) What effect did the decision have on its litigants?
    • Although these questions have been addressed by thousands of writers, there are still unexplored options.
    • The topic question can be formulated by the writer. When deciding to answer a question, be sure to explain why it is an important question.
      • Topic: Personal Finance
      • Possible Topic Questions: (1) What effect does bankruptcy have on pre-school children? (2) How does investing at a young age shape children's attitude about different jobs? (3) What effect does religion have on paying off debt?
    • A good topic question helps the writer focus.
    • A good topic question leads directly to the thesis statement.
    • A good topic question is open ended?
    • A good topic question guides research.
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    Think About the Type of Essay

    When creating a research topic question, think about the type of essay being written.

    • The writer may identify a theory or a set of basic principles and use it to solve a problem.
      • Example: How can [a particular theory] explain [certain events]?
    • The writer may want to develop a new solution to explain a particular situation.
      • Example: What [new theory] explains [a situation]?
    • The writer may want to focus on the definition of a word or concept?
      • Example: How do I define [a particular word or concept]?
    • The writer may want to identify the cause of a specific event or the effects of a specific event.
      • Example:What was the [causes(s) or effect[s] of a [particular event]?
    • The writer may want to explain the development of a specific event.
      • Example: How did [a particular event] develop?
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    Evaluate the Topic Question

    The importance of a good research topic question in the development of a thesis statement cannot be overstated. It, therefore, behooves the writer to evaluate his or her topic question before continuing with the writing process. Here are some suggestions every writer should know:

    • Make sure the topic question isn't too narrow as indicated by a lack of relevant materials pertaining to the topic. A topic question can be broadened by relating it to broader issues.
    • Make sure the topic question isn't too broad. If the writer cannot answer the question in the space or time provided then the topic is most likely too broad. Relating it to a more specific set of facts makes it more narrow.
    • Make sure the necessary resources are available. It doesn't make sense to research a topic with inferior resources.

    Note: Schaum's Guide to Writing Great Essays by Molly McClain and Jacqueline D. Roth has been an invaluable resource in teaching my students how to focus their essays by using topic questions.

Choosing a Writing Topic

Most student essays and research papers bore the teacher to tears, which makes sense because doing the research and writing the paper bores the student to tears. Teaching students how to choose an essay topic or a research topic makes the experience better for all.
  1. How to Choose a Topic for a Research Paper?
  2. Lesson Plan: How to Choose the Topic of a Research Paper
  3. Tips on Writing a Research Paper: How to Identify a Topic Question for Essays and Research Papers
  4. A Lesson Plan: Career Research Project & Essay