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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.


What is a TOPIC?

When asked to choose a topic for a research assignment you might struggle to find something you want to write about that is: 

  • specific enough to be called a topic
  • interesting enough to keep your attention

A topic is defined as a narrowed aspect of a SUBJECT. A subject is a branch of knowledge and contains many topics within it. 

A good rule of thumb for telling if you have a topic or a subject is to frame it as a question:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?

Can that question be answered in a single research assignment, a journal or magazine series, or does it require a book or multiple books? 

You should ideally be able to answer the question relating to your selected "topic" in a research assignment.

You also should NOT be able to answer your question about your topic with a simple YES or NO. 

To further focus your question, ask:

  • Why?
  • How?


Your ENG 101 instructor asks your class to write an argumentative paper (argumentative papers will argue for or against an idea and you must support your claim with supporting evidence). The topic should be related to the economy of Appalachia (subject).

To begin your assignment, you must have a topic.

Write a question you might have about the economy of an Appalachian community. 

Try asking yourself:

  • Who is affected by the economy? OR Who drives the economy?
  • Where is the community relative to its geographic location?
  • What industries prop up that community's economy? OR What are the negative impacts of a region's economic downfall?

Try It!


  1. A topic is defined as a narrowed aspect of a SUBJECT.
  2. Ask questions to about a subject to narrow your topic like WHO, WHERE, WHEN, WHY, and HOW.

Databases for Topic Exploration

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].