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Formulating your topic

Formulating your topic

Now that you have an idea of what you are going to write about you need to jot down everything you know about the topic and anything that you want to find out. This will form the basis of your search strategy. Mind tools like those featured below are a good first step to help identify keywords that represent your topic, raise key issues and concepts and identify gaps in your knowledge.

Try them and decide which is best for you.


This is where you just allocate ten minutes or so to just write down anything and everything that you know about the topic. Try not to stop to think just keep writing even if it is 'I can't think of anything else to write'. The idea is to really focus your mind on the topic and your existing knowledge. It will also help in making you aware of gaps that need to be filled. Don't worry about spelling or grammar at this stage just get the ideas down.

For an overview of Freewriting see this YouTube video: What is freewriting?


Brainstorming is similar, but instead of a constant flow of words you jot down key words and ideas.Brainstorming is often done in a group to encourage new ideas and to bounce ideas off one another which in turn may spark new ideas, but you can do it on your own.

Follow this link for examples of brainstorming techniques

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is similar to brainstorming but uses a mapping process so you make connections with lines rather than sticking to a hierarchical form. You start with your central topic in the middle of a large blank sheet of paper and you make connections.


Cubing encourages you to look at a topic from six different angles.

The Six Sides of the Cube are:

  1. Describe it - How would you describe the issue/topic? Describe key points
  2. Compare it - What is it similar to?
  3. Associate it - How does the topic connect to other issues/subjects? How does this decision/event connect to other decisions/events? How does this person/character relate to other people/characters?
  4. Analyze it - How would you break the problem/issue into smaller parts?
  5. Apply it - How does it help you understand other topics/issues?
  6. Argue for/against it - adopt a viewpoint
    • I am for/against this because...
    • This works/does not work because...
    • I agree/disagree because...



Heuristics is a techniques used in problem solving and decision making. Using heuristics encourages you to interview yourself to tease out everything you know about a topic.

Questions like Who? Why? What? How? When? and Where? are particularly useful when using this approach.

Now that you have thought about your topic you can begin to consider the type of information that will help in your research.

What type of information will help me?

What type of information will help me?

  • Primary v secondary
  • Scholarly v General Interest
  • Current v historical
  • Factual/statistical information. This can be useful in providing evidence to back up argument.
  • Where will I find information on my topic? Organisational websites, government websites.

Primary sources

These could be considered as "original" or "firsthand" sources. Some examples are:

  • Journal articles, reports and conference papers which present the results of original research are termed primary literature whether they're in print or electronic format.
  • Sets of data such as statistics and lab results are also primary sources as are documents produced at the time of an event e.g. diaries, photographs, court records, newspaper reports.

Secondary sources

These interpret, analyse or repackage primary material.

  • Examples of secondary sources are textbooks and review articles. These aim to summarise and explain previously published work rather than present the results of original work.
  • Abstracts, indexes, and databases are also secondary sources. These are used to identify relevant primary and secondary literature