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Communications & Writing Research Guide

This guide is intended to help students in all levels of writing and communications classes - whether you are new to doing research at Bentley or need a refresher!

Choosing a Topic

Your initial step in deciding on a topic is to find inspiration. Your professor may have provided a specific topic or list of topics to research.

  • Review Course Material - Browse your textbook or class notes for topics that interest you. If you are researching literature, were there any stories or authors that appealed to you? This is a good lead.
  • Browse the Web and Media - Read news sites, watch educational or news television programs, or open a newspaper or magazine. Does anything pique your interest? Try a Web search like "anthropology topics" or "controversial issues" to reveal entire lists of topics in your subject area.
  • Talk with Your Professor - Your professor is an expert in their field and will be able to provide you with great ideas to research. And you will also gain an idea of what topics your professor approves of.

If you found yourself inspired by many topics, then it is time to choose just one. Here are three ways to help you decide on a topic that is right for you:

  • Read the assignment requirements carefully. Is there a course theme (sustainability, gender/sexuality studies, media, etc.) that your research should be centered around? If you are unsure what topic would be relevant, talk to your professor.
  • Choose a topic you find interesting that you will remain engaged with.
  • Consider how others have written about your topic. Resources they have used will likely be helpful.  
  • Consider your topic's scope. How broad or narrow is it?

Topic Finder


Conducting Background Research

Once you have thought of a topic and created a research question that you would like to explore, the next step is to perform some background research on your topic. Conducting background research can help you learn more about your topic and may also help you refine your focus. By knowing more about your topic's background, you can develop a more defined topic and a stronger research paper.

Background research can take several forms. You might search Google, or read a few encyclopedia entries, or even a chapter in a textbook. In all of these instances, you will be briefly surveying the existing information to learn about your topic. This is a good practice because it helps to:

  • Identify key concepts, important terminology, notable people, and big events related to the topic
  • Formulate more specific research questions to help narrow your topic
  • Choose keywords to use for deeper searching
  • Highlight potential references and resources to use as you go through your research process
  • Make sure that there is enough information available on your topic
  • Decide if you truly want to pursue your research 

Background Information Sources

Reference sources are designed to help you find specific types of information quickly. You can use reference sources to:

  • get keywords and names for more effective advanced searching
  • read a quick overview of a new subject
  • find key facts and background information that will help you assess other resources
  • learn definitions of important words or concepts
  • see suggestions for more sources about your topic (including the best-known sources).


What kind of reference source do you need? Consult the chart below to determine where best to find specific types of background information.

Information Need Recommended Information Sources

Starting Point for Research

Try multipurpose reference sources first! These are large databases or collections of different types of reference sources, covering broad subject areas. For instance:

  • Gale EBooks - reference books on topics such as business, the environment, history, literature, geography, science, sociology, and technology
  • CQ Researcher - detailed introduction to issues of compelling public interest. Includes abstracts, chronologies, and bibliographies
  • Opposing Viewpoints in Context - covers social and political issues with access to primary and secondary source material with a wide range of opinions on these issues
  • Encyclopedia Britannica - general-knowledge database of thousands of articles written by field experts. Also included: primary source material, multimedia sources, biographies, and more.

Background information on a topic

Use encyclopedias for a quick introduction to a new topic, or as a starting point in your research process. Encyclopedias can be very general and introductory, or extremely specialized and academic.

The meaning of a word or an idea

Use dictionaries for definitions of words and concepts -- as well as translations.

Practical information on a topic or a  comprehensive overview

Start with handbooks, manuals, guides (etc.) for quick facts, formulas, and other practical information.

Information about a person or group of people

Biographical sources can give you information about individuals -- and also let you search for people by topics.

Information about a place

Looking for geographical information? Start with maps, atlases, and gazetteers.

Current information about a topic

Look at newspapers and magazines for contemporary reporting on an issue or topic.

Data, numbers, or facts on a topic

Need numbers or quick facts about a topic or time? Start with statistics, almanacs, and yearbooks.

Need more?

When you have to dig deeper, go to bibliographies and other reference sources.

Chart adapted from "Background Reference Sources" from Simon Fraser University Library. 

Refining Your Topic

Performing background research may reveal that your topic or research question is too broad (large) in focus or too narrow (small) in focus. You may have found too many or too few results to meet your information needs or assignment requirements. For example, a topic like "opioid use" will be too broad and return many results and potential areas for research. In contrast, a topic like "opioid use among teenagers in Waltham who attend private school" will be too narrow to find substantial research.

If you suspect your topic or research question is too narrow or too broad, see the next section for tips on how to fix these issues.

Narrowing Your Topic

If you returned too many results, it can be helpful to narrow the focus of your research.

Here are some techniques to help narrow your topic.

Technique Ask Yourself Example Narrowed
Time Period Can my topic focus on a specific time or date range? In the past decade or specific year? In the future? e-cigarette sales e-cigarette sales in the last five years
Place Does my topic have a local focus? Can I focus on a specific geographic region or area? gentrification gentrification in Boston, MA
Population Can I limit the topic to a specific gender, age group, income level, ethnicity, nationality, education level, etc.? social media use social media use among teenagers
Viewpoint Can I focus on a political, philosophical, ethical, social, legal, or economic aspect or viewpoint? cost of health care cost of health care for welfare recipients
Person/Group Is there an individual or group relevant to my topic? athlete salaries student-athlete compensation


Broadening Your Topic

Your topic or research question could potentially be too narrow or specific to find enough information, so you may need to broaden your topic to find acceptable resources.

Here are some techniques to help broaden your topic.

Technique Ask Yourself Example Broadened
Generalize Is my topic too specific? Can I use more general terms to describe the topic? loneliness caused by Instagram mental health risks of social media use
Synonyms Is there another way to say my topic? Are there any related terms? women in Batman movies gender roles in superhero films
Eliminate Concepts Am I trying to research too many concepts at a time? Can I eliminate one or more? academic achievement of 3rd graders in Massachusetts private schools academic achievement of elementary school students in Massachusetts
Currency Is my topic so new that there is not much research on it yet? Can I look at a larger issue instead? unionization of Starbucks employees labor disputes in the foodservice industry