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Step 3 - Looking for and Forming a Focus

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Goal: Exploring your topic, finding and forming a focus for your research.

Step 1 - Getting Started

Step 2 - Discovering and Choosing a Topic

Step 3 - Looking for and Forming a Focus

Step 4 - Gathering Information

Step 5 - Preparing to Write

Step 6 - Writing the Paper

Feelings: You're probably still feeling uncertain, even though you have a topic. As you root around in your topic, you may have your darkest hour in the whole process, feeling threatened by the choice of a focus—what if you pick the "wrong" one? Try to tolerate these feelings. Once you choose a focus, you should start to feel some optimism and confidence. You may even have an "Aha!" experience, but don't worry if you don't—there's not an "Aha!" in every A+ paper.

Thoughts and Actions: Follow the steps below to get an idea of things you should be thinking about and doing, and some of the strategies which will help. Note the type of information search you should be doing at this stage.

Info Search

ExplorersNow that you have a topic, you need to learn about it! Instead of piloting a helicopter over the landscape, you're now on the ground. Picture your topic as a square mile of land. Your task is to explore it, which will require going around, over and through it several times to see what's there, looking at it from different perspectives.

3.1 Info Search - exploring your topic

Before you can decide on a focus, you need to explore your topic, to become informed about the topic, to build on your knowledge and experience. You'll be locating books, articles, videos, internet and other resources about your topic and reading to learn! You're looking for an issue, an aspect, a perspective on which to focus your research paper.

This is the first step in which you'll probably be checking books out of the library. Encyclopedias won't be much help here. You're looking for treatments of your topic which are either more comprehensive or more specific than an encyclopedic treatment, with various authors' summaries, analyses and opinions. But, until you've chosen a focus, you're not really on a mission of gathering information. If you gather information on the topic as a whole, you'll waste a lot of time doing it and have way too much to sort through when you are ready to write your paper. Resist the temptation to "gather" until you've chosen a focus.

Now you'll be using the library's online catalog, online indexes and the Web search engines along with the reference room and the subject-based Web directories. Learn how in the Info Search section.

3.2 Info Search - preliminary note taking

As you read, start taking notes of what you're learning about your topic—concepts, issues, problems, areas where experts agree or disagree. Keep track of the bibliographic references for the information you're using, and write down a note or two of what's contained in the book, article, Website, etc. There's nothing more frustrating than knowing you read something earlier about a particular point and not being able to locate it again when you decide it's something you need.

Find out what kind of citations are required by your instructor and make sure you're recording what you'll need to do your bibliography. See links to Citing Sources.

3.3 Purposeful thinking about possible focuses

While you're learning about your topic, intentionally look for possible focuses in the material. You could spend enormous amounts of time reading, especially about an interesting topic, without being any closer to a focus unless you purposefully keep that goal in your mind while you read.

3.4 Choosing a focus or combining themes to form a focus

Try your choices of focus on for "size" as you did your topic. Which ones fit the assignment, the size, scope and type of the paper? Think about which of your possible focuses has the best chance for making a successful A+ paper. If you find several themes within your topic which each are too small to support the entire paper, can they be combined to form a focus?

If you haven't yet read the linked articles on

browse through them to get suggestions for focusing and narrowing your topic.

Ready to go on? This way to Step 4

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A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz