So your teacher just told you that for your final paper, you need to write eight pages on a course-related topic. Let’s say it’s a course on race and ethnic problems in the United States. That’s a really big topic, and as a result, too many ideas start to spill into your mind. You could write about how the effects of racism and poverty seem to go together, or how racism fuels white supremacy, or how blacks are targeted by the police, or… but the problem is, each of these is a huge topic, too, right? How can you talk about all the different ways that race and poverty go together? You only have ten (or eight, or six) pages available.
Well, to be honest? You can’t.
This is known as the Too Many Ideas problem. It’s also known as the “scope condition” problem. If your teacher usually says you are trying to cover too many ideas in your papers, this guide is for you.
There are three ways to narrow down a paper topic into something manageable: Time, Place and People. Let’s take the example topic of “Nonwhite people have more chances of being poor than whites” and turn it into something you can work with.
First, let’s look at time. When do you want to talk about? The entire 200-plus-year history of the United States? That’s probably more than we could fit into ten books, never mind ten pages. Do you want it to be a time you could have been a witness to? Do you want it to be right now, in the modern era? Ideally, pick a decade; that’s usually a large enough timespan to have good research sources, without being so big that it’s overwhelming. For our example, we’ll pick the 1990s (from 1990 to 1999).
Second, let’s look at place. Where do you want to write about? Again, the entire United States is more than you can probably cover in ten pages (or eight, or whatever). Where in the United States do you want to write about? Los Angeles? New York? Memphis? Houston? Pick a place that’s manageable. Usually a city is about as big as you’ll want to go, here, for an average eight- or ten-page college paper. In this case, we’ll use Atlanta, Georgia as our place.
Finally, let’s look at people. You’ve got a broad-spectrum comparison in the original topic. Narrow it down. Who do you want to talk about most? Do you want to discuss the African-American community? The Latino community? The Native community? It’s time to pick a group to talk about. In this case, we’ll take the African-American community. (If we were looking at Los Angeles we might say Latinos; if we were in Montana we might say Native Americans. It’s all good; this is just an example.)
So now, instead of the very broad and hard-to-work-with topic of “nonwhite people have more chance of being poor than whites,” we have narrowed the scope of this down to something manageable:
African-Americans in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1990s faced a higher chance of poverty than whites in the same place and time.
That’s how you set a scope condition, and turn too many ideas into one strong one.
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