Writing Topic Proposals

Dawn Atkinson

Chapter Overview

This chapter aims to help you understand what a topic proposal is and how to prepare one. At its heart, a topic proposal is a persuasive document: when constructing a topic proposal, a writer aims to convince the reader that he or she has a defined topic in mind for an associated project, as well as a practical approach for completing that project. You may be asked to prepare a topic proposal on the way to writing a researched argument essay, for example, to assure your instructor that you have a manageable plan in place. A topic proposal also helps a writer clarify the focus of the related project so that it can be finished in a realistic time frame.

What, specifically, is a topic proposal?

Although the specifications for topic proposals vary depending on their associated projects, in general, a topic proposal

  • Identifies the focus of a linked project.
  • States the writer’s working thesis, a sentence or two that introduces the writer’s topic plus his or her position on it; research questions, questions that a study seeks to answer; or research objectives. These need to be specific to be actionable.
  • Discusses the rationale for the project or its focus.
  • Overviews the research strategy planned for the project.

When presented in a clear, coherent, concise, concrete, correct, complete, and courteous way, these items speak to the viability of the related project.

How does a writer prepare a topic proposal?  

Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, address the bullet list items in paragraph format in your topic proposal using an introduction, body, conclusion, and reference list format. Keep in mind that an introduction announces a document’s subject and helps steer readers through the document; a body supplies focused topic sentences and accompanying details that all pertain to the subject mentioned in the introduction; a conclusion emphasizes the document’s main message and summarizes key takeaways; and a reference list identifies the full bibliographical details for outside sources mentioned in the document. This textbook’s “Organizing Paragraphs” chapter provides detailed guidance about how to construct paragraphs, while the “Selecting a Style Guide” chapter discusses the specifics of referencing.

Because a topic proposal is affiliated with a more in-depth project, it offers an opportunity to conduct initial research for the project. The research will likely feed into the project—if it is sound—so aim to find quality sources that will contribute to the project’s development, and cite and reference them in the proposal. Table 1, which is adapted from Reynolds Community College Libraries (2018b) and University of Washington Libraries (2020), lists a variety of information sources that you might possibly consult when preparing a topic proposal.


Table 1. Types of information sources that may feed into a topic proposal

Information Type Characteristics When to Use
Reference Books


  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks
General and subject-specific reference books provide brief overviews or summaries of topics, which might include background information, facts, key ideas, important dates, and concepts. If you know little about your topic, reference sources are an excellent place to start research.
Circulating Books


  • Fiction books
  • Nonfiction books
Books typically provide an in-depth examination of a topic. Research-oriented books are works of non-fiction, while fiction works include novels, short stories, and poetry. If you need:

  • Historical and detailed information on a subject.
  • To put your topic in context with other important issues.
  • Several points of view in one book (e.g., in an edited book).
Journal Articles

Also known as:

  • Peer-reviewed articles
  • Refereed articles
  • Scholarly articles
Journal articles are peer-reviewed, meaning they are evaluated by experts working in the same field as a means of quality control. A refereed journal contains peer-reviewed articles. Journals cover a variety of disciplines and feature articles that provide in-depth research on specific topics. Articles are written by scholars (researchers) in a field and use vocabulary from that particular field of study. Journal articles can sometimes be lengthy, contain references, and are typically published on a monthly or quarterly basis. If you need:

  • Accounts of original research, to find out what has been studied on your topic.
  • References that point to other relevant research.
Magazine & Newspaper Articles

Also known as:

  • Popular articles
  • Periodical articles
Magazine and newspaper articles provide up-to-date information on various issues and events. Articles may be written by staff or freelance writers or may be unsigned. The articles are typically written for a general audience and use everyday language. They also tend to be short and are published on a daily (newspapers), weekly, or monthly basis. If you need:

  • Up-to-date information about current issues, popular culture, or international, national, regional, and local events.
  • Various points of view or popular opinions (e.g., editorials, commentaries).
Trade Articles

Also known as:

  • Trade journal articles
  • Trade magazine articles
A trade article is written by and for individuals working in a certain field to address a topic pertinent to that field. These articles may use specialized vocabulary and are typically published on a weekly or monthly basis by professional associations or commercial entities. They may be peer reviewed or not and may use personal experience as evidence for points made. If you need:

  • Timely coverage of industry trends.
  • Information about an industry-specific topic.
Government Sources


  • Legislation
  • Reports
  • Statistics
Government sources (international, national, state, and local) provide both historical and current information—data and analysis—on various matters of interest. If you need:

  • Legislation from a specific area or level of government.
  • Reports or studies conducted by a government agency.
  • Historical or current data collected by the government on a specific topic or demographic.
Internet Sources


  • Webpages
  • Images
  • Videos
  • Audio
  • Blogs
One of the main features of the internet is the ability to quickly link to information. The internet also contains information beyond plain text, including images, sound, and video. Since anyone can publish on the internet, you need to carefully evaluate the information you find there. For instance, any individual, company, or organization can publish a blog (an ongoing record of thoughts, reflections, experiences, and information that is posted to the internet for others to read), meaning that you must carefully evaluate the trustworthiness of blog entries, just as you would any other source of information that you intend to use in a research project. If you need:

  • Information on current news and events.
  • Expert and popular opinions on various issues.
  • Company information.
  • Information from all levels of government.
Primary Sources


  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Observations
  • Diaries
  • Speeches
  • Personal communications
  • Original documents
This source category is comprised of information that a researcher collects or examines firsthand. In other words, the information in primary sources is gathered or presented in its original form: for example, in an email, memo, or letter; a set of interview notes; a work of literature or art; an account of an event or experience; or an original document, such as a building plan or birth certificate. If you need:

  • Original research data or statistics.
  • A first-hand account of experiences or events.
Secondary Sources


  • Reports
  • Essays
  • Journal articles
  • Magazine and newspaper articles
Secondary sources comment on, analyze, evaluate, or interpret primary sources or provide second-hand accounts of experiences or events. These sources draw upon content originally shared in primary sources. If you need:

  • A second-hand account of experiences or events.
  • An interpretation of a primary source.


Ultimately, after reading a topic proposal, readers should get a sense of a project’s direction and the sources that will be used when undertaking it and thus feel confident about its feasibility.


Activity A: Work with a Sample Topic Proposal

Read the sample topic proposal that follows, which is adapted from Lerner (n.d.) as cited in Schall (2014, “Sample Proposal”). Afterwards, identify its components using the bullet list items presented at the beginning of this chapter.

Sample Proposal

Having read and diagrammed the parts of this topic proposal, identify what makes it effective.   Be specific in your response so you can discuss your ideas in class.


Activity B: Consider the Quality of Sources

As this chapter indicates, a topic proposal offers an opportunity to conduct initial research for an associated project in order to locate sources that can be used when developing the project. When identifying sources, you must think carefully about their quality and how that characteristic is linked to source effectiveness.

Table 2, which is adapted from Reynolds Community College Libraries (2018a; 2020a; 2020b), lists points to consider when evaluating the quality of sources for use in a topic proposal or other document. Study the table.

Table 2. Points to take into account when evaluating sources

Criteria Questions to Ask What to Look For
Author/ Authority/ Accuracy
  • Who is the author?
  • Is the author well known?
  • Does the publication list the author’s credentials (education or work experience)?
  • Has the author published other works?
  • Is the author affiliated with a company, institution, or organization?
  • What sources did the author use?
  • How many sources did the author use?
  • In the case of an article, is it peer-reviewed?
  • Does the work contain spelling, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization errors?
  • Can you verify the accuracy of points made in the work across multiple sources written by different authors?
  • Google the author’s name.
  • Search the library catalog, library databases, Google Scholar, and WorldCat.org (an online library catalog) to see if the author has written other works.
  • Check for references. The number and type of references can help you determine the work’s value and verify its conclusions.
  • Google a journal and read its About section to find out if it is peer reviewed.
  • Search the library catalog, library databases, Google Scholar, and WorldCat.org for other sources that address the same points.
  • Book: Read the book jacket, preface, and introduction.
  • Article: Look for information about the author at the beginning or end of the piece.
    • Read the abstract and/or introduction and conclusion.
  • Who is the publisher?
  • Is it a commercial publisher, university publisher, professional association, research center, or government agency?
  • Book: Review the publisher information, which is usually listed on the first few pages.
    • Google the publisher’s website and review the About
  • Article: Google the journal, magazine, or newspaper the article appears in.
    • Review the About section.
Purpose/ Objectivity
  • Is the work intended to inform, sell/promote, entertain, persuade, or do a combination?
  • Does the author use sources to support his or her viewpoint(s)?
  • Does the author provide source details on a reference list, in footnotes, or in links?
  • Are opposing points of view represented?

Note: You may not be able to evaluate the objectivity of the work until you have reviewed multiple sources that address the same topic.

  • Look at the reference list.
  • Book: Read the preface and introduction.
    • Read reviews of the book.
  • Article: Read the abstract and/or introduction and conclusion.
  • Website: Look for advertisements or pop-up messages.
    • Look for uncluttered pages.
    • Look for an easy-to-navigate design.
  • Who is the intended audience: scholars/specialists, students, children, the general public, or others?
  • Is the information written at a level you can understand?
  • Look for specialized language, either defined or undefined.
  • Look for language and content that is too elementary for college-level research.
  • Do you need up-to-date information on a timely topic, issue, or event?
  • Do you need a current perspective on an older issue or event?
  • Do you need a first-hand account of an event from the time it actually happened?
  • Is the date of update or publication listed?

Note: Books and peer-reviewed journal articles can take more than a year to publish. In the areas of health, technology, engineering, and science, currency is important, but currency is less important for biographies and works covering the history of a particular topic.

Also note that seminal works, those so central to an area of study that they heavily influence it, never become dated. William Shakespeare’s texts, for instance, are regarded as seminal pieces of English literature.

  • Check the publication dates of sources used.
  • Book: Check the publication date, which is usually listed on the first few pages.
    • Read the preface and introduction.
    • Check WorldCat.org to see if there is a more recent edition of the book. Multiple editions indicate the book is well regarded enough to have been through multiple revisions and has been updated.
  • Article: Check the publication date. For print articles, the date is usually listed on the front cover of the journal, magazine, or newspaper. For online articles, the date is usually listed near the top of the webpage.
    • Read the abstract and/or introduction and conclusion.
  • Website: Check that hyperlinks work.
Content/ Relevance/ Usefulness
  • Does the work provide detailed coverage of a topic, an overview of the topic, or a unique perspective on the topic?
  • Does the work include original research or a first-hand account of an event or discovery?
  • Is the source a secondary account that includes analysis and interpretation of original research or events?
  • Does the work address a subject from a specific time period or geographic location?
  • Does the whole work or certain sections address your research topic?
  • Does the work support or refute an argument?
  • Does the work provide background information/an overview of the subject, ideas, opinions, case studies, examples, research results, or statistics you can use to support your points?
  • Read the title.
  • Read the headings (if applicable).
  • Read the first sentence of each paragraph.
  • Look at any visuals provided.
  • Book: Read the book jacket.
    • Read the preface and introduction.
    • Review the table of contents/chapter titles.
    • Use the index at the back to locate specific topics.
  • Article: Read the abstract and/or introduction and conclusion.

Using the points listed in Table 2, evaluate the quality of the following sources, focusing specifically on source credibility. Be prepared to discuss your responses in class.

  • An article in a peer-reviewed medical journal about a treatment for the Zika virus
  • A college student who is accused of plagiarism after copying and pasting large sections of text from the internet into his paper without providing quotation marks or attribution—the student claims that he was taught that method of source integration in high school
  • A book written by a respected medical doctor who is also the CEO of a pharmaceutical company claiming that there is no link between vaccinations and autism
  • An article in a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on nutrition: the article draws conclusions and makes recommendations about portion sizes and types of food that should be consumed for optimal health based on the results of a research study that gathered data from participants via use of self-report logs (the participants made lists of what they ate over a series of days and submitted these to the researchers)
  • An entry on the American Psychological Association’s “APA Style Blog” (https://apastyle.apa.org/blog/) about how to construct a reference list entry for a conference poster presentation
  • A student’s research report that bases its recommendations for a campus-improvement project on the findings presented in one peer-reviewed journal article—in the report, the student writer says those findings prove the improvement project is feasible


Homework: Produce a Topic Proposal

Identify a subject you would like to explore in a researched argument essay. Your instructor may assign you a subject or ask you to select one. Research the subject by locating and reading sources about it; consult the tables in this chapter for help with identifying and evaluating the sources. Afterwards, compose a topic proposal for the argument essay using the guidelines presented in this chapter. Remember to cite and reference all outside sources you mention and use in the topic proposal.

Use the following multi-page handout, produced by Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University (2018), when refining your text to ensure it is concise, precise, and easy to follow.

Modifiers and How to Use Them



Reynolds Community College Libraries. (2018a). Evaluate sources. License: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0https://libguides.reynolds.edu/c.php?g=143583&p=2189564

Reynolds Community College Libraries. (2018b). Types of information sources. License: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0https://libguides.reynolds.edu/c.php?g=143583&p=2189564

Reynolds Community College Libraries. (2020a). Evaluating articles. License: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.  https://libguides.reynolds.edu/c.php?g=143583&p=2189564

Reynolds Community College Libraries. (2020b). Evaluating books. License: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.  https://libguides.reynolds.edu/c.php?g=143583&p=2189564

Schall, J. (2014). Sample proposal: Effective technical writing in the information age. Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/c6_p5.html

Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University. (2018). Modifiers and how to use them. License: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5. http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Modifiers-and-How-To-Use-Them.pdf

University of Washington Libraries. (2020). Savvy info consumers: What are scholarly, popular, & trade publications? https://guides.lib.uw.edu/research/evaluate/sources


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