Guide for Writing in Geography
Coming up with a Topic
Any assignment, whether major or minor, is usually easier and more enjoyable if it
is focused on a topic about which you are interested and excited. One of the questions
to think about when coming up with a topic, then, is first and foremost: What interests
you? What do you care about, in the context of the assignment or course? Taking this
as a starting point will lead to fruitful possibilities for the topic of your assignment.
Brainstorming also can help. Jot down informal notes without worrying about grammar
or complete sentences. Make lists. Focus narrowly, or use association to come up with
potential linkages between ideas.
Diagrams, maps, sketches can help generate ideas and allow for making connections
Freewriting is another part of research and writing that is also a quick and informal
way to develop an idea. In contrast to the lists or phrases that often make up brainstorming,
freewriting is an opportunity to write and elaborate more fully – while still taking
liberties with grammar or specific sentence structure. Giving yourself a time limit
such as ten or fifteen minutes (or shorter or longer) can help to structure your freewriting.
You can also focus freewriting on a challenge you are having with your work, or just
leave it more open.
Here is just one example of freewriting:
…Freewriting. what is freewriting? maybe it is just letting yourself go writing whatever
comes to your head. it’s a little different from brainstorming, at least it seems
different to me, but how. well, brainstorming for me is coming up with ideas and making
associations, when I brainstorm I usually list my ideas and then try to come see how
they connect I usually draw arrows and circles and by the time I am done I have a
kind of chart that tells me where I’m going, but when I freewrite it’s different because
I just let the language unwind and I tend to think in more or less complete sentences
but I don’t worry about grammar or style or if I’m making transitions between my ideas.
what I do instead is just to let my thoughts unfurl like a flag and flap around in
the breeze, and even if I don’t come up with anything all that interesting freewriting
loosens me up and lets me see that I can write, all I have to do is push buttons,
and pushing buttons is a lot more fun than just sitting and staring at a blank screen…
(source: Dartmouth College Writing Guide)
Once you have written something, reread it and identify the main thoughts and any
interesting points. Look for questions and ideas that might be worth pursuing.
Talk with someone about your ideas. Instructors (professors and TAs) may be the best
people to check in with about your developing topic, and many have office hours for
this kind of conversation. However, don’t overlook other resources such as classmates
in the same course, other students in your major, interested friends and family. Sometimes
having a conversation about the assignment and how you’d like to approach it can be
helpful in identifying areas of confusion, and in coming up with possibilities you
Adapted from: Dartmouth College, Writing Program, “Coming up with your topic”, accessed
March 5, 2010.
Getting started with research
As you start your research, you will want to keep in mind the types of sources expected
in your assignment, and keep track of the kinds of sources you find.
Is the source scholarly?
One of the first questions to think about is whether or not a source may be considered
“scholarly”. Scholarly, or academic, sources are not the only sources acceptable for
work at the university level. But they do make up the majority of research and writing
within which professors and graduate students situate their own work, and often make
up the bulk of assigned readings and coursework for undergraduates.
It is important to be able to identify whether or not a source may be considered scholarly,
though there are grey areas. (When in doubt, ask for guidance from a librarian and/or
your instructors!) More generally, identifying some key characteristics of sources
can also help you in evaluating how they might best be used in making your claim or
Scholarly sources (also known as academic, peer-reviewed, or refereed) are written by experts in a
particular field and serve to keep others interested in that field up to date on the
most recent research, findings, and news. These resources will provide the most substantial
information for your research and papers.
Peer-reviewed means a source has been reviewed and evaluated by a board of colleagues in the author’s
field. Reviewers assess the source as part of the body of research for a particular
discipline, and make recommendations regarding its publication in a journal, determine
whether there is a need for revisions before publication, and, in some cases, determine
whether to reject the source for publication.
Different types of sources
Journal articles, books, magazines
Students most often confuse scholarly and popular sources when using a variety of
sources from journal articles, books, and magazines.
Journal articles are the most common kind of peer-reviewed source you will likely come across in your
geography research. They tend to have these characteristics in common:
Journals are organized in a variety of ways, but one of the most useful is to search
a database that includes many journals. See below (section on “Library Resources”)
and check with the library website and/or a librarian for help in navigating a search
using a range of article characteristics such as: author name, key words, title, subject,
Journals are available online through the library website, and sometimes available
in hard copy in the Periodicals Department of the library. Many of the articles you
may find when searching a database will be available in an online “full text” format
(usually a pdf that can be downloaded and printed). Generally, your instructors will
not consider such articles “online sources”, even though you may have found them online.
If in doubt, ask your instructors about their requirements for the number or type
of online sources.
Books can often be characterized as having scholarly or popular emphases by the type of
publisher and intended audience. (Just because a book is nonfiction does not mean
it is scholarly!) Some things to consider about books:
- Date of publication and currency: Is the information current enough for your purposes?
How do you know?
- Publishers: A university press is likely to be scholarly. Professional organizations
and the U.S. Government Printing Office can also be indicators of scholarly content.
- Who is the intended audience for the book?
Popular journalistic sources such as magazines tend to be written by non-specialists (often journalists), are not peer-reviewed,
and are intended for a more general audience. They will generally not provide the
level of analysis and expertise of journal articles. (But hey might be useful as reflections
of particular phenomena in which you may be interested and which you may analyze in
the course of your writing.)
Websites also may be considered a scholarly or academic source, although certainly
the vast majority of websites are not! In addition to some of the concerns above,
another consideration for websites is the validity or accuracy of the information
presented. Think about the following aspects of online sources, to start to determine
how they might fit into your project:
- How did you find the website?
- Was it recommended by a faculty member or another reliable source?
- Was it a link from a known reputable site?
- Was it found via a search conducted through a search engine? Unlike library databases,
the accuracy and/or quality of information located via a search engine will vary greatly.
Not to mention, you may be inundated with millions of extraneous links.
- Identify the website’s domain.
You can tell a lot from the URL, or Internet address, of a website – such as indications
of the site’s mission or purpose.
- .org : An advocacy website, such as a not for profit organization
- .com : A business or commercial site.
- .net : A site from a network organization or an Internet service provider.
- .edu : A site affiliated with a higher education institution.
- .gov : A federal government site.
- .mn.us : A state government site – may also include public schools and community colleges.
- .uk (United Kingdom) : A site originating in another country.
- ~ : The tilde usually indicates a personal page.
- Who is the author?
- Is the author’s name visible? Does the author have an affiliation with an organization
- Does the author list his or her credentials, and what are they?
- Is there a mailing address or telephone number included, as well as an email address?
- Accuracy and objectivity
- How accurate is the information presented? Are sources of factual information cited?
Is there a bibliography included?
- Does the page take a particular point of view or bias?
- Does the page contain advertising? This may impact the content of the information
included. Look carefully to determine the relationship between the advertising and
- Currency – timeliness of information, maintenance
- When was the page created and last updated?
- Are the links current and functional?
Accessing and acquiring the information you need:
Most academic assignments rely on more than your own opinions or experiences (though
some certainly do). Especially when working on a research paper or project, you have
to find sources – such as those characterized above – to build your central argument.
The ability to find the information you need, to carry out research, is a fundamental
Access today is usually through the web:
- access to digital information – blogs, websites, audio and video material – that can
be found nowhere else
- access to digital information that can also be found in a non-digital form – e.g.
newspapers and academic journals, electronic versions of printed books
- access to information about how to find materials only published in a non-digital
format – e.g. microfilm, map, printed books not available online.
Refining your topic and developing a thesis
Suggestions for narrowing or expanding your topic
A topic you are considering may be so broad that it will be hard to successfully write
about it based on the expectations for the assignment. Sometimes your topic will be
too narrow, depending on the expectations of your instructor as outlined in the assignment.
You may get feedback to either narrow or expand your topic – but how do you do this?
Narrowing your topic
Look for specific examples.
Consider focusing on particular and important aspects of the larger context.
So far, your topic for a class presentation is: “Biotic factors in urban forests”.
This seems important from the course reading. However, “biotic” can be interpreted
to mean any living thing in an ecosystem. That’s pretty broad! Would a specific example
help? You have heard quite a bit about the Emerald Ash Borer in the Twin Cities metro
area. These insects are moving westward from other regions of the upper Midwest and
eating up ash trees – have there been management strategies that have helped minimize
the loss of trees in other urban areas? What is the response in the Twin Cities? How
will this affect different neighborhoods in the metro area? Are there two or three
neighborhoods you might compare?
In this case, a specific example can provide a way to focus your topic so that you
can develop a better set of questions to get your research underway. So, your refined
topic might be: “Impacts of Emerald Ash Borer in Three Twin Cities Neighborhoods”.
This will need even further work to develop a problem and thesis, but is much more
manageable than your original topic!
Expanding your topic
How is your topic connected to other concepts, facts, or theoretical approaches?
Consider your topic from another vantage.
Consider the larger context.
Developing a thesis
In many assignments, you are asked to develop an argument. This can also be thought
of as a claim or assertion about your topic, and is called the thesis of your paper.
You will develop several key supporting points to your thesis based on your interpretation
and explanation of the evidence you present, in order to defend your assertion about
Identifying a ‘problem’ within your topic
The thesis and the topic are not the same thing. Once you have identified your topic
– usually a fairly broad area of interest (see section #4 above: Coming up with a Topic) – you need to think about how it might become an interesting ‘problem’ or question
that you can explore and answer within the context and constraints of the assignment
(e.g. a 3-5 page paper for a particular geography course). This process might be called
‘problematizing’ your topic.
Topic: “Universities and their host cities” – way too big!
Narrowing the topic: “How large American universities affect their host city” – still
The topic understood as a problem: “What is the impact of the University of Minnesota
on adjacent Minneapolis neighborhoods?”
Even more specific: “How has housing in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis
changed in recent years, and what role has the University of Minnesota played in bringing
these changes about?”
This last and more specific set of questions points directly to a particular institution,
identifies a neighborhood adjacent to the institution, and identifies a single significant
feature (housing). If this were your project, you must now decide about a time frame,
select which housing-related variables will be examined, and consider how to find
the information needed.
There is no formula for when or how to do this – but it will help to begin focusing
your interests within your topic early in the process. You may need to go back and
forth between (1) researching the available information and existing work on your
topic, and (2) refining how you define the problem within your topic that you will
eventually develop into your thesis.
Developing a thesis and thesis statement
Don’t feel pressure to come up with your thesis immediately. It often takes an outline
or draft before you develop your thesis. Your thesis can be thought of as an assertion
or proposition with which the reader may agree or disagree – ideally one that is interesting
to the reader!
The thesis is communicated by the thesis statement – a sentence that states your assertion
and suggests your interpretation and analysis. Most often the thesis statement comes
towards the end of the Introduction (see section #10 Structure and Organization).
Thesis statements sometimes begin with “I will argue that…”.
Thesis statement or purpose statement?
The purpose statement is related, but different, from the thesis statement. Rather
than stating the argument of the paper, the purpose statement provides a road map
to the reader and outlines the purpose and scope of the project (e.g. “This paper
examines…”). Your instructor may have specific instructions regarding purpose and
This section adapted from:
University of Minnesota, Master of Liberal Arts Program, Instructions for Final Project,
accessed April 21, 2014