10.4: Narrowing Your Focus

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are expected to do research in college/university and in the workplace. Let’s look at a scenario.

Ravneet’s Story

Ravneet is doing an internship at a small press. Authors and agents submit children’s books for potential publication and Ravneet is responsible for reading them all and passing on the most promising ones to the editorial team. One day, the head editor says that she is frustrated by the lack of diversity in the children’s book manuscripts that she is receiving. She asks Ravneet to do some research on this issue.

Ravneet isn’t sure where to start. The topic of diversity in children’s book publishing is huge. She begins by doing some background research. A Twitter thread leads her to an article about how 50% of main characters in children’s books are white, 27% are animals, and only 23% are BIPOC characters.[1]  Then, she looks at the submission history for her press for the last few months and realizes that the breakdown is pretty similar.

Ravneet narrows her research question from “diversity in publishing” to “How can our small press encourage more diverse submissions?” If she had found that the press received diverse submissions but only accepted books with white main characters, her research focus would have been different. Her question is now both more manageable (which will save her time) and more useful given her company’s situation.

From there, Ravneet does the following research:

  • Reads articles about how other presses have managed to get more diverse applications.
  • Follows some popular BIPOC authors on Twitter, learns about some of the challenges they’ve faced in the publishing industry, and interviews several of them to gather even more information.
  • Discovers that authors with a disability face additional barriers and identifies this as an untapped market.
  • Interviews a few agents to get their perspective.
  • Looks at the website copy for different presses and realizes that her company’s website copy could be more inclusive.
  • Writes a short report outlining her findings.

As you can see, a specific research question allowed Ravneet to save time, as well as ask the right questions. Ravneet also kept an open mind throughout the process. She didn’t start with a preconceived idea of her own that she wanted to prove — she went where the evidence took her. She hadn’t thought about disability, but her research led her to this area. As a result, her editor was able to use her research to make positive changes within the press.

Why Narrow a Topic?

In college/ university, instructors often give you assignments that require you to narrow down a topic. This is a reflection of the type of research you will be expected to do at work.

A grey pie chart with a red wedge representing a narrower topic. A narrow topic is a slice of a larger one.
Figure 10.4.1

For instance, your assignment might be to develop a poster about “spring” for an introductory horticulture course. The instructor expects you to narrow that topic to something you are interested in and that is related to your class. In this case, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what is interesting or attractive to you about “spring” and also related to what you are learning in your horticulture class and small enough to manage in the time you have.

If you are not sure where to start, you can get some preliminary ideas through a basic internet search, looking for things that seem interesting and relevant to your class, and then letting one thing lead to another as you keep reading and thinking. At this stage, Wikipedia is one source you could use — but, if you do, be sure to pay attention to the references at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages and pursue any that look interesting. Your instructor is not likely to let you use Wikipedia as one of your research sources because it’s not a fully reliable source, but those references may be citable scholarly sources that you could eventually decide to use.

Background Reading

For college/university projects, always do some more reading about that narrower topic once you have it, so you can learn more about it and assimilate some terms used by experts who have studied your narrower topic. Those terms will prove helpful when you start looking for research sources later, so write them down.

For instance, if you were going to do research about the treatment for humans with bird flu, this background reading would teach you that professionals and scholars usually use the term avian influenza instead of bird flu when they write about it. (They also often use H1N1 or H1N9 to identify the strain.) If you didn’t learn that, you would miss the kinds of sources you’ll eventually need for your assignment.

This initial reading could cause you to narrow your topic further, which is highly advisable because narrower topics lead to greater specificity and a more in-depth perspective — which is what both your college instructors and your workplace managers would want to see. After this preliminary work, you are ready to start developing the research question(s) you will try to answer.

In the workplace, you may have varying degrees of control over your research question. As you progress in your career, you may spend less time hunting for background information because you are more familiar with the industry and because you know where to look for relevant information.

Fuel Your Inspiration

It’s worth remembering that reading, scanning, looking at, and listening to information resources is very useful during any step of the process to develop research questions. Doing so can jog our memories, give us details that will help us focus, and help us connect disparate information — all of which will help us come up with relevant research questions.

Many new communicators are surprised by how much background or preliminary exploration goes into workplace research. For example, a graphic designer asked to create some social media content might read graphic design blogs and magazines, look at Instagram and Twitter posts by well-known graphic designers, and examine what several other companies are doing. This may seem like just browsing for fun, but the process is likely to help our graphic designer to come up with more creative, interesting, and useful ideas.

  1. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=an-updated-look-at-diversity-in-childrens-books


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10.4: Narrowing Your Focus Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ashman; Arley Cruthers; eCampusOntario; Ontario Business Faculty; and University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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