Choosing a Topic

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze strategies for choosing a topic for a paper

How Do I Pick a Topic?

"Topic" bullet list: Assignment criteria, brainstorm, personal interest, selection, refinement.

Figure 1. Researching several scholarly sources can help you when narrowing down or refining your topic.

Have you ever been stressed out because you can’t think of a good topic for an important writing assignment? You’re not alone. As a student, you’d probably prefer it if professors would just assign topics rather than leave you to find one on your own. However, professors aren’t vague because they want to punish you; they may not want to constrain your creativity or discourage you from writing about topics that truly interest you. Professors also want to be surprised by their students’ ingenuity, and very few teachers want to read a big stack of essays all on the same stale topic. Unfortunately, just being told to “be creative” is unlikely to calm you down when you have a major paper due next week and still have not found a topic to write about.

Imagine that you are in an introductory literature course. The professor has assigned a 3-5 page essay on a Shakespearean play that requires multiple sources. You try asking the professor to be more specific or offer some suggestions. The professor responds, “No, it’s up to you. Find your research question.” What do you do?

One smart option is to go to the library and look for scholarly journals on Shakespearean studies. Many of these journals are housed electronically in databases your college library subscribes to. You might also try scholarly books about Shakespeare and his plays. Browsing these sources should give you some ideas about the aspects of Shakespeare and his plays that scholars have found worth writing about. You might find that an idea that you thought was “totally original” has already been done. However, you shouldn’t let this worry you. If every essay or book had to be 100% original, we’d have precious few to read.

If you keep reading and skimming articles and books, you will find many different discussions and possibilities for writing topics. One way to do this is to write a list of binaries, a list of opposing ideas that may represent larger discussions about the topic at hand. Choosing from these opposing ideas in the text will lead you to ideas for a more specific argument. Scholars frequently engage in complex and long-lasting arguments that span across different journal articles and books. Professor X’s article on climate change will be mentioned, discussed, or challenged by Professor Y in a book and Professor Z in another article. None of them are worried about saying things that have never been said before; the key is just to say them differently and perhaps better.

You will always have one advantage over any other scholar you read—their articles and books cannot take advantage of all the relevant scholarship that appeared after their publication date. Don’t be afraid to freshen up an old article with new supporting evidence—or challenge one whose conclusions are called into question by subsequent research.

You should also look for an issue that you can reasonably cover given the time and space (page count) you have available. After that, it’s a simple matter of supporting your argument by bringing in relevant quotations from those who agree with you. You should also identify the counter-arguments and provide pertinent background information. In essence, the easiest way to find a topic to write about is to see what other writers are writing about and join their “conversation.” The conversation metaphor is a very useful way to understand what scholarship is all about.

Rather than thinking of essays or books as isolated units of scholarship, try envisioning them as the fruits of a massive network of scholars who converse with each other via scholarly documents, conference presentations, e-mail, phone calls, and other forms of communication. Research what is available and where you can make the most valuable contribution.

Watch It

The following video demonstrates the process of selecting and refining a research question.

The Problem of Topic vs. Approach

Some instructors who assign writing projects will leave the choice of what to write about up to you. Others will have a very defined set of topics for you to write from. But even when an instructor assigns a given topic or offers a choice of assigned topics, you have a lot of opportunity for creativity.

The real issue here is the approach. When you come to an assigned essay as a project, how you first engage with it will determine your overall experience. Some students see any writing assignment as an externally imposed task—something they have to do in order to pass the course. This approach will guarantee that those students will eventually hate their assignments, possibly their instructor, and when push comes to shove the whole prospect of being in school.

Solution: Choosing an Approach to Your Topic

Deliberately choosing how you approach your topic will help you not only choose one that will satisfy the requirements, but also ensure that you enjoy the process of research and writing. After all, no one on earth can do what you do. So, only you can figure out how to write a great essay in your own voice.

It all starts with selecting a topic. How you approach that selection process is vastly important.

Look to things that interest you as a way of finding your paper topic! Use that initial fascination to twist the topic of your paper so that it becomes an excuse to wallow in whatever got you interested in that class in the first place.

Avoiding the Pit of Despair

Whatever you do, try not to fall into the trap of thinking your work is simply a required box that needs to be checked and you can’t bring any creativity to the table. Even if the class was required for your program or degree, you still chose that program. There are ways to make almost any writing task valuable to your learning.

Narrowing a Broad Topic

Once you’ve settled on a general topic or problem to address for a writing assignment, the next step is to narrow it down to an appropriate focus.

Narrowing a topic can be done in various ways. Most of the time you will need to use two or more of the following strategies. However, the requirements and scope of your assignment will determine which ones you use.

To narrow a topic, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Can you focus your project on a specific aspect of the topic?

Most issues or concepts can be subdivided into narrower issues or concepts. If you can’t subdivide your topic, then, most of the time, your topic is as narrow as it can get. In addition, it is probably better suited to a short or small project than a long or substantial one.

In some cases, you might find you need to expand, rather than narrow, a topic selection.

  • Can you narrow your topic to a specific time period?

Restricting your topic to a specific time period can narrow most topics. Many activities or things exist through time. Restricting yourself to that activity or thing within a specific time period reduces the amount of material you have to cover.

For example, armies and soldiers have existed from before recorded history. Restricting yourself to “Army life during World War II” or “Army life in Ancient Egypt” reduces the scope of what you need to cover.

HINT: there is likely to be a lot more primary and secondary material on army life in World War II than there is on army life in ancient Egypt simply because more information from recent centuries has survived than from ancient centuries.
  • Can you narrow your topic to a specific geographic area?

Many topics can be limited to a specific region of the country or the world. For example, “Wolves” can be limited to “Arctic Wolves.”

  • Can you narrow your topic to a specific event?

Restricting your topic to a specific event is another way to narrow a topic. However, the amount of information available on a specific event will depend upon the relative importance of that event. For example, you will most likely find more information on why the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan than you will about the car bomb used by criminals in a local crime. Taking the time to think through your research question, your topic, and the research available will help you as your draft your ideas.  

Try It