8 Deciding on a Topic
Dr. Karen Palmer
Read Assignments Closely and Critically
A close and careful reading of any given writing assignment will help you sort out the ideas you want to develop in your writing assignment and make sense of how any assigned readings fit with the required writing.
Use the following strategies to make the most of every writing assignment you receive:
- Look for key words, especially verbs such as analyze, summarize, evaluate, or argue, in the assignment itself that will give clues to the type of writing required.
- Do some pre-writing that establishes what you already know and believe about the subject if your instructor has given you a topic. Make a list of ideas you will need to learn more about in order to complete the assignment.
- Develop a list of possible ideas you could pursue if the topic is more open.
Use the following strategies to help you make the most of readings that support the writing assignment:
- Make a note if you question something in any assigned reading related to the writing assignment.
- Preview each reading assignment by jotting down your existing opinions about the topic before reading. As you read, monitor whether your preconceived opinions prevent you from giving the text a fair reading. After finishing the text, check for changes in your opinions as result of your reading.
- Mark the locations of different opinions in your readings, so you can easily revisit them.
- Note the points in your readings that you consider most interesting and most useful. Consider sharing your thoughts on the text in class discussions.
- Note any inconsistencies or details in your readings with which you disagree. Plan to discuss these details with other students or your professor.
Above all, when questions or concerns arise as you apply these strategies, take them up with your professor directly, either in class or during office hours. Making contact with your professor helps you stand out from the crowd and demonstrates that you are an engaged student.
Strategies for Choosing Strong Topics
1. Connect Your Reading with Your Writing
College writing often requires the use of others’ opinions and ideas to support, compare, and ground your opinions. You read to understand others’ opinions; you write to express your opinions in the context of what you’ve read. Remember that your writing must be just that—yours. Take care to use others’ opinions and ideas only as support. Make sure your ideas create the core of your writing assignments.
2. Share and Test Your Thinking with Others
Discussion and debate are mainstays of a college education. Sharing and debating ideas with instructors and other students allows all involved to learn from each other and grow. You often enter into a discussion with your opinions and exit with a widened viewpoint. Although you can read an assignment and generate your understandings and opinions without speaking to another person, you would be limiting yourself by those actions. Instead it is in your best interest to share your opinions and listen to or read others’ opinions on a steady, ongoing basis.
In order to share your ideas and opinions in a scholarly way, you must properly prepare your knowledge bank.
Make sure to maintain fluidity in your thoughts and opinions. Be prepared to make adjustments as you learn new ideas through discussions with others or through additional readings. You can discuss and debate in person or online, in real time or asynchronously. One advantage to written online discussions and debates is that you have an archived copy for later reference, so you don’t have to rely on memory. For this reason, some instructors choose to develop class sites for student collaboration, discussion, and debate.
3. Make rhetorical choices about your topic
As a college student, you must take complete responsibility for your writing assignments. Your professors are assessing your ability to think for yourself, so they’re less likely to give you ready-made templates on how to write a given essay. This lack of clarity will be unsettling, but it’s part of an important growth process. By using strategies, you can systematically approach each assignment and gather the information you need for your writing requirements.
Once you know you have an upcoming writing project, you have some basic decisions to make. The following list of questions will lead you to make some preliminary choices for your writing project.
- What am I trying to accomplish? Writing can serve a variety of purposes, such as to explain, to persuade, to describe, to entertain, or to compare. Your assignment might specifically dictate the purpose of the writing project. Or the assignment might simply indicate, for example, that you are to show you understand a topic. In such a situation, you would then be free to choose a writing purpose through which you could demonstrate your understanding.
- Who do I want my readers to be? Traditionally the audience for a college student’s paper has been the instructor, but technology is rapidly changing that. Many instructors actively make use of the web’s collaborative opportunities. Your fellow students (or even people outside the class) may now be your audience, and this will change how you approach your assignment. Even if your instructor is the only person who will see your finished product, you have the responsibility to identify an ideal reader for your work. Whoever your audience is, take care to avoid writing too far above or too far beneath their knowledge or interest level.
- What am I writing about? Your topic might be set by your instructor. If so, make sure you know if you have the option of writing about different angles of the topic. If the topic is not preset, choose a topic in which you will be happy to immerse yourself.
- What’s my position on this topic? Analyze your ideas and opinions before you start the writing project, especially if the assignment calls for you to take a position. Leave room for new ideas and changes in your opinion as you research and learn about the topic. Keep in mind that taking a stand is important in your efforts to write a paper that is truly yours rather than a compilation of others’ ideas and opinions, but the stand you take should be one that is informed by research. If your purpose is to compare ideas and opinions on a given topic, clarifying your opinion may not be so critical, but remember that you are still using an interpretive point of view even when you are “merely” summarizing or analyzing data.
- How long does this piece of writing need to be? How much depth should I go into? Many assignments have a predetermined range of page numbers, which somewhat dictates the depth of the topic. If no guidance is provided regarding length, it will be up to you to determine the scope of the writing project. Discussions with other students or your instructor might be helpful in making this determination.
- How should I format this piece of writing? Every discipline has a specific documentation format that is preferred in that discipline. For example, most courses in the humanities, including English courses, require MLA format, while psychology and nursing require APA. Make sure you follow the guidelines given to you by your professor.
- How or where will I publish this piece of writing? You are “publishing” every time you submit an essay in Canvas. However, if your writing means something to you, you may want to share it with others beyond your instructor in some manner. For example, some students choose to share their work online in some way or to distribute copies to those who helped with their research. Knowing how you will publish your work will affect some of the choices you make during the writing process.
Planning the basics for your essay ahead of time will help assure proper organization for both the process and the product. It is almost a certainty that an unorganized process will lead to an unorganized product.
For every assignment you receive with an open topic, get into the habit of writing a journal or blog entry that answers the following four questions:
1. What are some topics that interest you?
2. What topics will fit within the time frame you have for the project?
3. Of the possible topics, which have enough depth for the required paper?
4. For which topics can you think of an angle about which you are passionate?
4. Choose a Topic that Interests You
Life is simply too short not to write about topics that interest you. Your readers will quickly pick up on your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for a topic. Following up on personal interest can, at best, make a writing project fun, and at the very least, keep you (and your readers) from being miserable.
Most college writing instructors will not dictate too narrow a topic area, in part because they don’t have any interest in being bored and in part because they believe that topic generation is an important piece of the student writer’s job. But let’s explore a worst-case scenario, just to show how you can make practically any topic your own.
Let’s say you are given an assignment to explore the history of South Dakota within a ten-page essay. Clearly, you can’t cover the whole state in ten pages. Rather, you would think about—and maybe research a little bit—aspects of South Dakota that might be interesting to you and your readers. Let’s say that you are a motorcycle enthusiast, and you are interested in Sturgis, South Dakota. Or perhaps your great-great-grandmother was a Dakota Indian, and you are interested in the Dakota Indian tribe. Or maybe you are an artist and you are interested in the corn mosaics on the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. The point is that, if you think about South Dakota enough, you can find some direction of personal interest. This is true with essentially any writing assignment you might be given. Find some element of it that interests you, and your writing will be more interesting and genuine!
Assigned Topic: The History of South Dakota
Personal Interest Direction: The Motorcycle Rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota
First Narrowing of Topic: The Acceptance by Locals of the Mass Influx of Motorcycles over the Years
Final Topic: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area
Once you choose a direction of interest, such as the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, you still have to narrow this secondary topic into a topic that you can cover in ten pages and that has an interesting point. A method of moving from your general topic of interest to your final topic is to ask questions and let your answers guide you along.
Question #1: How do the Sturgis Rallies connect to the history of South Dakota?
Answer: The Sturgis Rallies have been going on for over seventy years, so they are part of the history of South Dakota.
Question #2: Over the years, how have the people of Sturgis felt about all those bikes invading their peaceful little city?
Answer: I bet there are people on both sides of the issue. On the other hand, a lot of people there make a great deal of money on the event.
Question #3: After over seventy years, has the event become such a part of the city that the bikes aren’t really seen as an invasion but rather more like a season that will naturally come?
Answer: It probably has become a natural part of the city and the whole surrounding area. That would be a good topic: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area.
As you can see, it is possible to narrow your general topic down to a more manageable and interesting set of questions.
1. Record the thought processes you would go through to narrow the writing topic “Thomas Edison” to a topic of interest to you for a ten-page assignment. Include the transcript of your self-talk and self-questioning process.
2. Work with a partner. Together, talk through moving from the general topic “Television” to a specific topic that would work well for a five-page paper.
3. With a partner or by yourself, narrow the following general topic areas to specific topics that would work in essays of approximately one thousand words:
- Electoral Politics
- Environmental Protection
- The First Amendment
- Campus Security
- Content adapted from “Chapter 11: Academic Writing” licensed under CC BY NC SA 3.0.
- “Choosing a Topic” licensed under CC BY NC SA.