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English Research Basics

Learn to research with ease using credible, college-appropriate resources to frame, guide, and inform your projects

Select A Meaningful Topic

Generating Topic Ideas

Whenever you are given the freedom to do so, select a topic that genuinely interests you and/or is relevant to your life. Do a quick inventory:

  • What makes you tick? What defines you?
  • What problems affect you or someone close to you?
  • What do you think the biggest problem in society is?

You'll want to consider the following issues before you select your topic:

  • Will it sustain my interest?
  • Does it fit the parameters of my assignment?
  • Is credible information on this topic readily available?








Databases to Help You Pick a Topic

You can get ideas for research topics from several library databases and from the Web. 

Click on the button below (then scroll down) to browse our Pick a Topic databases:

 pick a topic databases button

Find a Focus

Researchers can spend their lives exploring topics. They publish books and articles, conduct studies, present at conferences, teach classes, etc. As a student, you don’t have a lifetime to devote to your topic and you probably won’t be publishing a book. Rather, you will have just a few weeks, and your end product will likely be something along the lines of a 6-10 page research paper or a 5-8 minute speech.

Once you identify a strong topic you need to find a manageable focus for your work. Focusing involves clearly defining the specific aspect of the topic you will explore. Think of formulating a guiding research question that captures the main idea of your research. In short: what are you trying to figure out?


Things to Consider When Focusing:

  • How long is the finished product supposed to be? What can you reasonably cover in that amount?

  • What is your task? Are you arguing? Comparing and contrasting? Writing a cause and effect paper? Solving a problem?


Methods to Help You Focus:

  1. Go back to “why” you chose your topic: What made you choose your topic in the first place? Sometimes articulating the “why” out loud will directly reveal the direction you want to go with your topic.

  2. Do some preliminary reading: Take a few minutes to run your topic through the library catalog and the library databases. Note how others are exploring your topic. What “grabs” you?  What doesn’t?

  3. Talk to others about your topic: Check in with your professors and librarians. Talk to your friends, family, and classmates about your topic. Having your topic reflected by someone else can often spark great ideas, and any chance to articulate your topic “out loud” is beneficial.

Start with Background Reading

Doing some background reading at the beginning of your research helps you to understand your topic right from the start. You'll be able to put your topic in context and create research questions that drive your search for information.  In addition, when you begin hunting and gathering information, you’ll know if what you’re finding is relevant and useful.

You need to begin understanding your topic early in order to know:

  1. What information you need to find

  2. Whether or not what you are finding is relevant

  3. What search terms will lead to successful searches

  4. What information is reliable

You don't even have to read a lot of books to get this valuable background information. Reference books, like encyclopedias and dictionaries, are a wonderful place to start your reseach.


The MJC Library subscribes to several online databases that are great for finding background information. Try searching in...