Power Tools: Finding, Narrowing, Outlining Topics

The following section was originally part of Power Tools for Technical Writing, published by Harcourt, but taken out because of length considerations. This section was part of a chapter made up of the following:
  1. Finding topics—provides strategies for finding topics for technical-writing projects.
  2. Narrowing topics—provides strategies for focusing a writing project on a specific, manageable topic, for reducing a hopelessly large topic to something that can be .
  3. Outlining writing projects—provides techniques and guidelines for developing outlines for writing projects.

How Do You Narrow a Topic?

In a technical-writing course, the ideal starting place is a workplace problem requiring some writing as part or all of the solution. With such a project, the audience and problem are there to help you narrow the topic. However, if you begin with a topic, it's harder to narrow. You are likely to end up with ten-pound textbook on automotive plastics, residential solar energy in the home, or La Niña. Narrow the topic and some careful research—the result will be a practical, useful document that doesn't go on forever.

Narrowing means selecting a portion of a larger topic: for example, selecting a specific time period, event, place, people, type, component, use or application, cause or effect, and so on. Narrowing also means deciding on the amount of detail to use in discussing those topics.

Let's walk through a typical narrowing exercise to see how it works. This particular example works "backward" from a topic to a realistic audience and purpose. In a "real world" situation, you'd begin with a workplace situation.

  1. Imagine that you want to write something about gardening. You have a backyard vegetable garden that you grow as a hobby, and of course for the vegetables it produces:

    gardening >>

  2. What can you do with a topic like gardening? You know you want to focus on vegetable gardening, but that's only a first timid step at narrowing. There are still dozens and dozens of topics related to vegetable gardening:

    gardening >> vegetable gardening

  3. What are the possibilities related to vegetable gardening? Obviously, there are topics like planting techniques, pest control, fertilization and irrigation topics, perhaps even special-focus reports on individual vegetables—tomatoes, onions, butter beans, peppers. Among these, you lean more to gardening methods or techniques—such as drip irrigation, raised-bed gardening, organic pest control, and so on:

    gardening >> vegetable gardening >> special gardening techniques

  4. Now we are getting somewhere! But you can't write on all those techniques— pick one! Recently, you were reading about how NASA's plans for the human exploration of Mars includes growing food there on the planet—specifically by using hydroponic methods. This sparks your curiosity; it's the right topic for a technical document of some kind:

    gardening >> vegetable gardening >> special gardening techniques >> hydroponic gardening

  5. You're all done with narrowing, right? Sorry, you're barely half-way there. Hydroponics, the science and craft of growing plants without soil, is a big topic in its own right. What specifically interests you about hydroponics: Interested in setting up a hydroponics system in your garage? Curious whether the claims about hydroponically grown foods are true? Wondering what it takes to run a hydroponics system? Interested in finding a commercially available hydroponic system that meets your needs and price range? Yes— something about practical realities of hydroponics! Your real interest here is the feasibility of hydroponic gardening, recommendations, or both:

    gardening >> vegetable gardening >> special gardening techniques >> hydroponic gardening >> feasibility/recommendations relating to hydroponic gardening

  6. Now you have a choice: (a) focus on the feasibility of hydroponics or (b) focus on commercially available systems to determine which is best and which will fit in your garage. At this stage, you are not ready to pick a system; instead, you must convince yourself that the whole concept is practical. Therefore, let's focus on the general feasibility:

    gardening >> vegetable gardening >> special gardening techniques >> hydroponic gardening >> feasibility/recommendations relating to hydroponic gardening >> general feasibility of hydroponics gardening

  7. Chapter 4 presents several kinds of feasibility: practical feasibility, whether it works; economic feasibility, whether it's too expensive and whether it pays for itself or offers economic advantages; implementation feasibility, whether it's too much trouble, whether you have to remodel your entire garage; and feasibility in terms of the yield and quality— whether hydroponically grown vegetables are any good.

    So what's it going to be? You know that you want answers to these questions: does hydroponic gardening work? what's the yield? is it any good? how much of a hassle is it? how expensive and how difficult is it to build your own system? and what do you need—in general terms—to build a system? Is this too much for a semester report in a technical-writing course?

    gardening >> vegetable gardening >> special gardening techniques >> hydroponic gardening >> feasibility/recommendations relating to hydroponic gardening >> general feasibility of hydroponics gardening >> hydroponic gardening: practicality, yield, management, and costs

  8. You've come a long way from "gardening," but you may still need to keep going. Actually, we've done one other narrowing operation without noticing: the focus is small-time, hobbyist, or "home" hydroponic gardening—not commercial hydroponic gardening. In any case, you have four main questions: (a) does it work, (b) how well does it work, (c) how much work is it, and (d) and what are the costs? These translate into subtopics.

  9. To this point, we've been operating in a vacuum, not considering audience and situation, focusing instead on your interests in this topic. Now it's time to get real—to define a real or realistic audience and situation. Who wants this document? Who would hire us (hydroponics experts) to write it? How would people obtain this document? Imagine that a hydroponics association, club, or special-interest group sends out a request for proposals (RFP). Its members want a technical writer to develop an overview guide on hydroponics: not a how-to, not a parts list—just an introduction answering people's questions and concerns. The organization will ship your overview to anybody who inquires about the topic—and they'll pay you for all of this great work. (See Chapter 19 for more on audience analysis.)

  10. Are we there yet? Not quite. Narrowing means two things: zooming in on progressively smaller and smaller subtopics; but also deciding on level and amount of detail. In this hydroponics overview, must you cover the four subtopics in excruciating detail? No, at most you'll want to cover practicality in moderate detail: readers need enough detail to see that the method actually works. Use the same amount of detail for yield, perhaps citing some comparative studies. But use only light detail for management and costs. You must keep this overview relatively brief and readable. Notice that these four main topics are not in the best sequence; we'll get to that in the outlining phase:

    Home hydroponics system: topics
    Costs—how expensive to build and run a system? light detail
    Practicality—do they really work? moderate detail
    Management—how much hassle? light detail
    Yield—how much and how good is the produce? moderate detail

Workshop—Narrowing topics

For practice and workshop material on narrowing, see narrowing practice.

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