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EN105 First-Year Writing - All Sections

How Do I Choose a "Good" Topic?

Throughout your college career, you'll be asked to write any number of essays - so how do you know for each one, what you should write about? Some topics must be better than others - but how do you know when you've hit the sweet spot? How do you know when you've found a topic that will best help you get that A?

Here are some suggestions on how to start:

  1. Read your assignment carefully. Does your professor already have a specific question in mind for you to answer? Are they leaving you to choose your own topic? 
      • You can write the world's greatest paper, but if it doesn't address the question or topic your professor has asked you to write about, you'll have done all that work for nothing. :(
    • Think about other requirements:
      • How long is your paper supposed to be?
        • A 3-page paper will need to have a much narrower focus than a 25-page paper, because you have far less space in which to answer a particular question thoroughly. Just because a paper is shorter doesn't mean you can skimp on backing up your argument!
      • What kinds of sources do you have to use? Are you required to use scholarly journal articles and books? Are you required to use a certain number of sources?
        • If your paper needs mostly or entirely scholarly sources, think about how scholars would approach your topic. They likely won't be reacting to currently developing news, and they'll be asking deeper questions than their popular source counterparts.
        • (Don't worry, we have another module entirely dedicated to popular and scholarly sources!)
  2. What kind of research has already been done on that topic?
    • There are two terrible things to find out when you're halfway done writing a paper: that nobody has ever written about your topic in any way before, or that someone has already written a published essay that answers your exact question!
      • In the former, don't be discouraged - if you're really interested in that topic, you can always do your own hands-on research at some other point! But for the sake of a class paper, it's best to be able to draw your evidence from research that's been done before. 
      • In the latter, you will want to pivot your topic choice a little bit. By answering the same question as someone else, you'll be far more likely to plagiarize their work - which can get you in big trouble. It also means your argument won't be original, and you can't prove to your professor that you yourself have had some of your own thoughts about the topic! I know it's tempting to find "the perfect article" that already answers your question thoroughly (it means your argument/hypothesis is likely correct, which is a great feeling!) but you want to make sure that your argument is original.
      • If either of these scenarios happen to you, not to worry! We'll talk about ways to tweak your topic in a few pages!
    • Who has been writing about your topic already? Where have they been published?
      • This question is especially important if your professor has asked you to use scholarly or peer-reviewed resources. If there aren't scholars writing about your topic, it might be in your best interest to switch to another one.
  3. What are you interested in learning more about?
    • This seems like a silly question at first - "it's just an assignment, who cares if I like the topic or not? I just want to have it written and turn it in!" I can hear you protest! I was a college student once, too, you know! 
    • You're going to be working on this paper for at least a few weeks. You're going to be searching, reading, researching, outlining, drafting, editing, and citing for this paper. If you're genuinely invested in the topic you're writing about, this process will feel far less arduous. Who knows? You may even have fun when you find that perfect article to wrap up your argument! 
    • Your papers will be far more interesting to read if you found them interesting to write. And an interesting paper will always receive higher marks than an uninteresting one.
    • Contrary to popular belief, learning is supposed to be fun! It's okay (encouraged, even!) to enjoy yourself while you're writing a paper!

Refining Your Topic

Once you know broadly what you want to write about, you'll have to narrow your topic so you can write about it thoroughly in the space you have. Below are some ways to start thinking about directions to take your paper:

  1. Brainstorming
    • Mind-Mapping
      • Great for drawing and seeing connections - if you learn and connect material visually, you may want to consider using this method
      • Start with your broad topic in the middle of a piece of paper
      • Then add branches to your main concept - this should help you begin to organize information in a meaningful way. Start with your most basic subtopics, like in the video. Then go outward and create more subtopics for your subtopics.
      • Each branch out will make your final topic selection more narrow - so keep this mind map around in case you find you need to reevaluate your topic choice later.
    • Free Writing
      • For when you really don't know where to start or where to go with your broad topic.
      • Take five or ten minutes and write everything you already know about your topic - these can be places, people, objects, theories, events, hypotheses, etc! If you get stuck and don't know what else to write, write that down, too! The point of this exercise is to get your brain moving and flowing, to push through the roadblocks when you get stuck.
      • By the end you'll likely have a much longer list than you thought you would - that's great! It'll boost your confidence and give you the motivation to keep going!
      • Circle the most interesting or important thoughts you had, and see if you can write a whole essay about it, or if you need to narrow or broaden that topic.
  2. Narrowing or Broadening your topic
    • Answer the questions Who, What, When, Where, and Why
      • Who: is a particular group involved/impacted by your topic? Who cares about this topic?
      • What: is something else influenced by this topic?
      • When: is there a specific period of time when your topic is/was relevant? Are you more interested in some of those times than others? Can you focus on a short amount of time?
      • Where: is there a specific place where this topic is relevant? Or perhaps more relevant?
      • Why: what's the impact of your topic? Why do you think it's important?
    • Answering these questions and adjusting your topic accordingly will help you narrow your topic
      • Examples of this: can you write about a particular group of people (minority group, a specific person, a political party) impacted by your topic? Can you write about a shorter period of time (a day, a week, a year) when your topic was relevant? Can you focus on a particular place (country, city, village) where your topic is relevant?
  3. Pre-searching
    • Use Google, Google Scholar, or a Library Database - search for your topic and see how many results come up. Don't worry so much right now about reading the articles or determining how useful they would be. Just look at the number of results.
    • If you're getting too many results, try narrowing your topic by looking at your brainstorming - is there another direction you can go? Can you narrow the answer to one of your five questions? Should you expand your mind map another level out?
    • If you're not getting any results, you'll want to broaden your topic a little bit.
    • Read the titles and some abstracts of the articles that discuss your topic - get a feel for:
      • What are scholars writing about with regard to your topic?
      • What are scholars' arguments regarding your topic?
      • Are there missing points of view/angles/connections? Is there a niche into which you can slide your own argument? (Remember: you don't want to restate an argument from a scholar, you want to create your own thesis, using the scholars' arguments as evidence.)

Creating a Research Question and Thesis

From Research Topic to Research Question:

A research question is slightly different from a research topic. 

  • A topic is an interest, a phrase or sentence that describes the kind of research you’re doing. This is what we’ve been discussing all up to this point.
  • A question asks something, and gives you the opportunity to answer. A research paper is, in its simplest form, the answer to a research question.

But how do you change your research topic into a research question?

Sometimes, this is easy to do, especially if you’re already asking implied questions in your topic.

  • Especially if you’re dealing with issues like impact or influence, you can usually transform your topic into a question like “what is the influence of [fill in the blank]?”
    • Examples of this:
      • Topic: the influence of slave spiritual song lyrics on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”
        Question: What influence did slave spiritual song lyrics have on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”?
      • Topic: the long term impact of slavery on cotton plantations on the economy of the American South
        Question: To what extent did slavery on cotton plantations impact the economy of the American South in the long-term?
    • In both of these examples, the topic is almost word-for-word the same, but you’ve simply tacked on a question word or phrase to the beginning. Now these are answerable questions.
  • Similarly, if you’re having a hard time narrowing your topic because you can’t find a quick answer to one of the five questions, that might be a good place to create a research question
    • Example of this:
      • Topic: the slave trade and native populations in 18th century Caribbean
        Question: What impact did the slave trade have on native populations in the 18th century Caribbean?
        Alternative question: Why did African slaves replace native populations in the 18th century Caribbean?
        Alternative question: In the 18th century Caribbean, who was impacted by the switch from the slavery of native populations to African people?
      • In all of these possible questions, the keywords remain the same, but the emphasis differs depending on the question being asked. This involves a little more mental gymnastics, but with practice, will get easier.

Sometimes, you have to let your pre-searching guide you to your question. You will likely be brainstorming your topic, beginning your research, and creating a research question all at the same time, and that’s okay! Your brain will have to do a little bit of juggling, but if you keep your focus narrow, it’ll be easier.

How do you create a research question without a totally refined topic yet?

  • Probably the easiest way to do this is to write down the questions you have as you begin to do some pre-searching. Some of these questions will be unanswerable, some will be simple fact-checking, but some will likely be good research questions you can write about!
  • Figure out what research questions the scholars are asking. Read the abstract or introduction to the scholarly articles you find - can you find their thesis statement? Can you determine what question they asked before they started writing?
    • Use this as inspiration for your own research question! Don’t copy it exactly, but if you’re noticing a number of scholars are asking the same or similar questions, maybe that’s something for you to pursue. Just make sure you find your own niche.

Still can’t figure out how to go from topic to question? That’s okay! It’s a difficult task, and one that doesn’t have a neat “one-size fits all” set of instructions. Ask a librarian or your professor for help. That’s what we’re here for!

From Research Question to Thesis Statement:

Once you have a research question, you can start to think about a thesis or argument for your essay.

Your answer to your research question will be your thesis statement. It’s as simple as that. The rest of your paper is simply evidence to support your argument.

Keep in mind though! Your thesis might change as you continue to research! That’s totally okay! You are allowed to change your argument as you find more evidence. You are allowed to change your mind when presented with a new idea. You are allowed to disagree with your former self. This is where the learning happens! This is actually a really good thing!