Introduction to Topic Selection

What you’ll learn to do: describe topic selection activities

The main character in the movie Misery is a writer named Paul Sheldon, who after a serious car accident is “rescued” by his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes. Annie holds him captive, withholding pain medications and torturing him mentally and physically while demanding that he write a novel that brings her favorite character, Misery Chastaine, back to life. The movie trailer for Misery reads, “Now Paul Sheldon must write as if his life depended on it . . . because it does.”

This is no one’s ideal writing scenario, nor is it a common one, but the direct association of writing and suffering will not seem far-fetched to anyone who writes. Based on a Stephen King novella of the same name, Misery suggests that even a prolific writer like King, who has written screenplays, novels, short stories, and essays for the past thirty-five years, finds writing difficult, even painful.

Chances are, if you have ever written a paper, you’ve experienced the uneasiness caused by the combination of a blank page and a looming deadline. Though it may seem counterintuitive, one way to make the process of getting started on a new assignment easier is to look for something that troubles you. Seek out difficulty, find problems. All academic disciplines require students to identify, mull over, and sometimes solve challenging problems. 

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

Sometimes it will be your responsibility to locate a problem. Here is an example of an assignment that specifically asks students to find a problem:

Identify and examine a human rights topic about which you would like to know more. You are welcome to consult with your instructor for ideas. You should use Internet, library, and other sources to gather information on this topic; this is not a full-scale research paper, so you need to find a small number of adequately comprehensive sources.

Your essay should:

  1. identify the issue
  2. describe its scope and frequency in geographic, regime-type, temporal, socio-demographic, or other terms, as appropriate
  3. identify the sense in which it is a human rights violation (of what article of what covenant)
  4. tell us what you have been able to learn about its causes
  5. identify political, social, cultural, economic or other factors that appear to contribute to its increase or decrease. You should critically assess biases or shortcomings in the information sources you used to research your topic.

While the prompt does not specifically use the term “problem,” it is clear that students are meant to focus on human rights “issues” or “violations” rather than successes in the area of human rights. In other words, these students have been sent out to look for trouble related to human rights.

Other writing assignments will not even hint at problems. You may just see a list of questions. For example:

Food plays a significant role in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. For this paper you should construct a persuasive argument in which you consider how the depictions of food and the rituals surrounding it reflect and promote the larger themes of the novel. Consider the following questions: Who is depicted eating and why? What do they eat and how? What is Wharton doing with acts of eating in her text? How does she use depictions of food to create narrative effects? What are these effects? What narrative effects does she use depictions of food to create?

While there is no direct or indirect mention of a problem in this particular assignment, your process and your product will benefit from a focus on a specific problem.

At this point, you may be wondering “What’s all this about problems? What about thesis or argument?” Problems motivate good papers, and good problems will lead you to your thesis or argument. Theses do not fall from the sky. Finding a rich problem can be a big step in the direction of developing a compelling thesis.