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First-Year Writing Seminars: Example Templates and Activities: Gather background / Narrow a topic

Gather Background Info / Focus Your Question

Somewhere in between your initial idea and settling on a research question, you may need to do background research on how scholars in a particular subject area have discussed your topic. You may find background research in your textbook or class readings, academic books in the library's collection, or reference sources.

The databases below compile encyclopedia sources from a variety of disciplines, and they can be a great way to consider how your topic has been studied from different angles.

Use NUSearch to browse for books, reference entries, and journal articles to build background information.


After you have an initial project idea, you can think deeper about the idea by developing a "Topic + Question + Significance" sentence. This formula came from Kate Turabian's Student's Guide to Writing College Papers. Turabian notes that you can use it plan and test your question, but do not incorporate this sentence directly into your paper (p. 13):

TOPIC: I am working on the topic of __________,
QUESTION: because I want to find out __________,
SIGNIFICANCE: so that I can help others understand __________.

Turabian, Kate L. Student's Guide to Writing College Papers. 4th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2010.

Remember: the shorter your final paper, the narrower your topic needs to be. Having trouble?

  • Which specific subset of the topic you can focus on? Specific demographic groups, people, places, times
  • Is there something about this topic that is not already addressed in scholarship?
  • Is there a relationship you can explore:
    • cause/effect
    • compare/contrast
    • current/historical
    • group/individual
    • opinion/reason
    • problem/solution


While using the background sources that helped you to formulate your research question, you also gathered a few citations for additional publications relevant to your question.  Review those resources, and the sources cited in them, but you will need to gather additional materials in order to develop a complete or persuasive answer to your research question.

Your research question drives the next steps of the research process.  Using the research question, identify the terms that are most important, that express the core concepts of your question.  Those core concepts are circled in the image below

For each concept or key word, identify synonyms that might be used when discussing these ideas.  This Keyword Worksheet can help organize your concepts and terms as you prepare search statements for use searching in NUSearchLinks to an external site. or library databases.

The content and images on this page were developed by Anne Zald,, Northwestern University Libraries

View the videos below to see how to form search strategies with your keywords.