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HIS - History (WO)

Pick a Topic

One of the biggest mistakes history students make is picking a topic that is too broad.  A broad topic (like ancient Egypt) will be difficult to write about, because it is too big.  How could you cover every aspect of a whole civilization in a short research paper - art, food, customs, religion, war, women's experiences?

Focus on a narrow topic instead. 


Ancient Egypt

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Marriage and Family in Ancient Egypt

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Warfare in Ancient Egypt

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Food in Ancient Egypt

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Pets in Ancient Egypt

Research Question

A focused topic is a great start, but eventually you will need to get even more specific by narrowing your interest to a specific research question.  Here are two tricks to help:

To narrow your topic, try phrasing it as a question.


Ancient Egypt


The Renaissance

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How did the Black Death affect women's role in society?

And answer the Five Ws:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why? / How?

Try with an Example!

Let's start with a very broad topic:  Black Death

First, turn it into a question:  How did the Black Death change people's lives?

This is a good start, but the question is very broad.  Try using the 5 Ws!

  • Who?  Children, women, urban dwellers, peasants, landowners ...
  • What?  Work, gender roles, leisure, art, religion ...
  • When?  During the Black Death, lingering effects seen today ...
  • Where?  Europe, Italy, North Africa, Mediterranean ...
  • Why / How?  Causes and effects

By answering these questions, you can decide whether you want to write about:

  1.  How did the Black Death affect women's role in society?
  2.  What role did the Church play during the Black Death and how did the plague change religion in Europe?
  3.  How did responses to the Black Death differ between Europe and the Islamic world?
  4.  Did the Black Death reached sub-Saharan Africa?  Why is there so little surviving evidence?

You won't always address all of the five Ws, but using a few will help narrow your focus.

Check Your Research Question

Once you answer the 5 Ws, we can finally put together a great research question, but make sure that it passes this final test.

A good research question is...

  • Specific

Only answer one main research question in your paper. It seems counterintuitive, but a narrow topic is actually easier to research than a broad one.  Instead of mentioning many ideas briefly, focus on just a few points and develop them well.

  • Interesting

Consider the assignment an opportunity to learn more about something that interests you.  Research is easier and more enjoyable when you pick a topic that interests you.

  • Unique

Good research tackles new, unusual topics. Your professor is an expert in history.  Try to give them something new or unusual, something that they might not have thought of before.