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HCTC Library Orientation and Research Guide: Choose Your Topic

This guide is meant to help HCTC library users locate and use library resources and aid them in their research.

Subject or Topic?

How to tell if your research question is a subject or a topic? A subject is a branch of knowledge and is broad in scope. A topic is a narrowed aspect of a subject. Tips for identifying a subject versus topic. Check source length, more books are devoted to your topic means it might be too broad. Use subdivisions of a subject. Phrase the subject as a question. An example of a subject is health. A narrowed aspect of health is pediatrics and a topic related to health and pediatrics is an infant vaccination schedule.

Brainstorming Methods

Explore the problem — not the topic

1.    Who is your reader?

2.    What is your purpose?

3.    Who are you, the writer? (What image or persona do you want to project?)

Make your goals operational

1.    How can you achieve your purpose?

2.    Can you make a plan?

Generate some ideas


  • Keep writing
  • Don't censor or evaluate
  • Keep returning to the problem

Talk to your reader

  • What questions would they ask?
  • What different kinds of readers might you have?

Ask yourself questions

Journalistic questions

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? So What?

From Brizee, A. (2010, April 17). Prewriting (Invention) General Questions. Retrieved from [Purdue].

The Zero Draft

The Zero Draft is an ideation technique for individuals often used by writers and is essentially a form of focused free-writing. For marketers and agency professionals, it can help focus the first stages of a new project by establishing what you currently know and getting your initial ideas out of your brain and onto paper.

Taking your central theme or topic:

Write down everything you currently know about the subject.

Write down what you need or want to know about the subject, but don't currently know.

Reflect on why the subject is important.

Add anything else that takes your fancy -- this is a chance to get whatever's floating around in your head out into the world.

The Zero Draft method is all about getting everything you can think of relating to your topic down on paper, so don't be concerned if it looks messy and unfocused. The goal is just to get past the initial block that often plagues creative professionals in the early stages of a new project.

From Mansfield, D. (2016, November 17). 10 Creative Exercises That Are Better Than Brainstorming​. Retrieved from [Where Marketers Go to Grow].

Databases for Topic Exploration

Writing a Research Question

How to write a research question. Number one: choose your topic. Start searching references sources such as encyclopedias on the topic you want to write on. Number two: explore interesting areas in your topic. Start narrowing your topic by asking questions such as who, when, and where. Number three: ask questions about the who, when, and where. Build on the questions you asked about who, when, and where with how and why. Number four: focus and deepen the question. Is your how or why question complex and focused? Can it be answered with yes or no? If yes, narrow it down further. Number five: evaluate the final question. How interesting is the question to you? Can you write an entire paper on the question without getting bored or running out of things to say? Can the question be answered or is it impossible to answer? What information do you need to answer the question?

Finding Keywords with Word Clouds

Word clouds are a fun way students can pull keywords from articles to continue their searching. Create a word cloud by copying parts of an article you are interested in and pasting it into a word cloud generator website such as:



​Word clouds work by eliminating stop words such as is, the, a, or and make the words larger the more times they are used in the copy and pasted text. This allows you to see a visual representation key concepts from a research article, allowing you to expound on that concept during your own research.

For example, this word cloud was created using Wordle and an article titled, Faculty perceptions towards student library use in a large urban community college. Judging from the title words like faculty and library emerge as strong concepts, the word cloud confirms that. But words like pedagogical, skills, and even self-esteem emerge in the word cloud, giving you some potential keywords to explore the overreaching topic further.

Word clouds emphasize the most used words in a chunk of text while removing stop words such as is, the, a, or, etc.

Baker, R. K. (1997). Faculty perceptions towards student library use in a large urban community college. Journal of Academic Librarianship. 23(3), 177.

Print Resources for Choosing a Topic

Learning Activities