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Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

Developing Your Question & Thesis

If you have followed the previous steps you should already have a topic that you find interesting, about which there is controversy, and for which the necessary sources are available to complete the research. You now have to make sure the topic you have chosen is neither too narrow, nor too broad for the requirements of the assignment. Keeping in mind the limitations of your assignment, ask yourself:

  • What is the issue I want to consider for my paper?
  • Can I cover this issue effectively in the space allotted? – If not, you may need to narrow your topic.
  • Do I have enough sources to complete this assignment? – If not, you may need to broaden your topic.


Most people will find that they have a topic that is too general and will have to narrow their topic before beginning their research in earnest.

TIP – For any one paper, you only need and should only have ONE question. More than one question will weaken any argument you make.

Narrowing Your Topic

A good question has focus so that it forces you to cover the material in depth and still be comprehensive. To narrow your topic, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a particular time period that you want to cover?
  • Is there a particular geographical area that you want to focus on?
  • Are there particular people whom you want to examine?
  • Is there a particular aspect of the topic that you want to focus on?

If you need to narrow your area of research, try:

  • Browsing subject headings for narrower topics.
  • Searching bibliographies for specific titles that could help focus your topic.

Broadening Your Topic

You have come up with an idea that is interesting, current, and controversial, but there simply aren’t enough resources available to write a research paper. In this case, broadening your question may be all you need to develop a good research question. To broaden your topic, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What other focus or approach could you take with this idea?
  • What other geographical place could you include in your focus?
  • Can you expand the period that you are considering?
  • Who else was involved?
  • Is there something else you could compare it with?

If you need more breadth in your focus, try:

  • Going back to your brainstorming techniques to come up with some broader possibilities for your idea.
  • Looking up some of the sources you found in the Library Collections and see what subject headings they are catalogued under. Do these subject headings give you any ideas for a broader topic?