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History Research Guide

Find primary sources, books, scholarly articles and other secondary sources in the field of History.

How to Refine Your Topic

How do I refine my topic?

Finding your topic can often be the hardest part of writing a paper. This is even more crucial and more difficult than starting the paper. You want to pick a topic that you have good foundations with. The topic should be something you are passionate about. It should be something you know something about but could have much more to learn. You want it to be something specific enough that it is manageable to research but broad enough that it can take you down a path of discovery. Here are some steps to consider before approaching a topic.

  1. What do you know? What experiences have prepared you to write this? You want to start with a place of comfort.

  2. What don’t you know? What experiences don’t you have that are gaps to what you know? You want to aim to go in a direction that you desire to go in. You choose the path, but you will have to take a path into the woods in the dark.

  3. What is your point of departure? (What starting point will you depart from?)

  4. What obstacles do you expect to face?

  5. How will you loosely plan to adapt your paper to these obstacles? (Having a plan to face them is crucial, even if you end up deviating from that plan in the course of the trajectory. This usually happens, so don’t be afraid if it does. Just try to stick to the plan, if you can.)

  6. What is the expected cost of writing this paper (How much time do you expect it will take? Realistically, you will invest more time than you expect. What sources will you need to prepare?)

  7. Arrival. How will you know when the paper is finished? Set some criteria.

  8. How will you change after writing this paper? What do you expect to learn? You can’t know, but take a guess.

These are modeled after basic principles of narrative: desire, obstacles, the return, and the change. Like creating a lesson plan before teaching a class, the actual execution will almost certainly deviate from the plan or expectations. Expect this to happen. Narrow your scope, and begin your project from the heart. What do you care about? What passion can you explore?


Use the sources you already have, and mine them. Dig through bibliographies to locate and select the sources in the direction you think you want to go in. For example, if your interest is art, find a book on art. Find the context surrounding that art. What have scholars said about that context? What events preceded it? This may give you a specific history to focus on.

If you are interested in an event, hobby or person, find a book about that thing. What things are related to that thing? How can you contribute to the dialogue surrounding that thing? Pay attention to other events and contexts surrounding the object of your research. Tertiary sources, like encyclopedias, can be helpful here. So can secondary sources, like biographies, popular books or brief analyses. 

Tree of Research Discovery

This is on representation of how to think about history. There are many approaches to think and write about the past. How historians apply these methods is called historiography. This singular representation might help you get started.

Research Tree

The process of narrowing your topic might look a little something like this. You will start with a sea of options and gradually narrow them down as you explore different branches. Don't be overwhelmed. Take the path of least resistance.

You could also imagine this tree in reverse, or upside-down. You begin with many ideas but whittle them down to one visionary trunk, and that becomes your base.

You could also imagine it this way: the roots are what you already know. Work your way up and let your research grow.