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Writing and Rhetoric II

Choosing a Topic

A useful way to think about your project is to describe it in a three-step sentence that states your TOPIC + QUESTION + SIGNIFICANCE (or TQS):


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

Don’t worry if at first you can’t think of something to put as the significance in the third step. As you develop your answer, you’ll find ways to explain why your question is worth asking!


TQS sentence example:

I am working on the topic of the Apollo mission to the moon, because I want to find out why it was deemed so important in the 1960s, so that I can help my classmates understand the role of symbolic events in shaping national identity.


Note: The TQS formula is meant to prime your thinking. Use it to plan and test your question, but don’t expect to put it in your paper in exactly this form.



Adapted from Kate L. Turabian, Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers, 5th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), pp. 14–15.

Narrowing Your Topic

Start researching your topic more broadly to help you narrow your topic.

Think about:

  • Which aspects am I most interested in?
  • Is there a particular group of people to focus on?
  • Is there a particular place to focus on?
  • Is there a particular time period to focus on?
  • What's the right scope for this particular research project? (For example, how much can I meaningfully address in this many pages?)


Background information can help with these questions before you dive in to more focused research.

Developing Strong Research Questions

Now use your narrowed topic to develop a research question!


Research Goals Possible Ways to Frame a Question
Describing and exploring
  • What are the characteristics of X?
  • How has X changed over time?
  • What are the main factors in X?
  • How does X experience Y?
  • How has X dealt with Y?
Explaining and testing
  • What is the relationship between X and Y?
  • What is the role of X in Y?
  • What is the impact of X on Y?
  • How does X influence Y?
  • What are the causes of X?
Evaluating and acting
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of X?
  • How effective is X?
  • How can X be achieved?
  • What are the most effective strategies to improve X?
  • How can X be used in Y?


Your research question should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your subject area and/or society more broadly



Adapted from Shona McCombes, "Developing strong research questions." Scribbr, March 2021.

Sample Research Questions

Clarity Focus


Why is social media harmful?


What is the effect on the environment from climate change?


How are online users experiencing privacy issues on TikTok?


How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to write a research question. Retrieved from