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Dec 20, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

We've said it before and we'll say it again: academic research is competitive. Those of you who compete for research funding, listen up: not only does your topic need academic merit, it needs to be catchy to compete.

This applies even if you are not an academic researcher and you just need to do a research project. Your topic needs salience.

How do you make your research stand out? Be clear. Be specific. Be original. Easier said than done, we know. Done right, you can gain that competitive edge you need to have an incredible research experience.

Here are five ways to come up with a catch research topic:

1. Seek inspiration

Your research idea needs to be fresh, relevant, and interesting. Read as much as you can on your topic. Look at textbooks, read journal articles, watch relevant documentaries, and talk to people in the field. 

From that, make lists of ideas and possibilities and research those. Take a deep dive down multiple pathways. Get as much information as you can. Take notes and keep track of them, either in files on your computer, or take them in a notebook.

How do you know when you've found what you're looking for? When you come up with a question that won't go away. When you can't stop thinking about an idea. When your wonder on the topic keeps you up at night.

What do you do then? Dig deeper into that question. Talk to your advisers and professors and continue to read, read, read.

Inspiration is gradual. Wait for it.

2. Be clear

There's nothing that turns off readers more than unclear, garbled language. Craft your main idea in plain language. Your research topic should read as a complex idea in simple language that most people can understand.

Stay focused and detailed -- don't get lost in the weeds.

Need some help? Talk to your adviser, use the resources in your campus library, and invest in a style guide. We recommend the classic style guide to writing clearly, E.B. White's The Elements of Style. It's free on Gutenberg!

3. Avoid jargon

Ok,  there may be one thing that turns off readers more than a lack of clarity: jargon. It stinks. Don't use it. 

What's jargon, you ask? Any special words, phrases, and expressions that a professional or academic group uses. Legal jargon, medical jargon, scientific jargon.

There's even internet jargon, which you should absolutely never use: LOL, BTW, ICYMI, BFF... you get the idea.

If there's language specific to a subgroup of users, it doesn't belong in your research paper. That's not to say there's no place for field-specific language (see #5).

Stick with the basics when it comes to language usage.

4. Make it personal

If you don't have a personal connection to your research topic, it might be best to avoid it. Ideally, you need passion and drive for research -- pick something you like!

Take something that has personal meaning and apply it to your research. For example, if you are really into skiing, select a research topic related to the snow in the fields of meteorology, climate science, or environmental sciences. If you love art, but need a research topic or a health course, look at representations of health in your favorite kind of art. 

5. Consider your audience

This is key to your success. Who's going to read this? Keep in mind that you're writing for them. Make your research topic something they will understand, respect, and admire.

Are you writing for professors? An adviser? A thesis committee? Your peers?

For whom are you doing this research and why are you doing it? Engage your audience, whoever it is.

You should still try to avoid jargon, but it is ok to use language common in the field as long as your audience can understand it and can understand why you're talking about it.

For example, if you're writing that research paper on art for your health class, it's ok to use common health terms. It's also ok to use art terms, too. Just define the more abstract ones. There's no guarantee that a health audience appreciates nuances in chiaroscuro.

Last of all, have fun!

Learn more about master's degrees.

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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