Choosing a Topic
This handout provides detailed information about how to write research papers including discussing research papers as a genre, choosing topics, and finding sources.
Contributors: Jack Raymond Baker, Allen Brizee, Ashley Velázquez
Last Edited: 2013-10-07 01:53:41
The first step of any research paper is for the student to understand the assignment. If this is not done, the student will often travel down many dead-end roads, wasting a great deal of time along the way. Do not hesitate to approach the instructor with questions if there is any confusion. A clear understanding of the assignment will allow you to focus on other aspects of the process, such as choosing a topic and identifying your audience.
A student will often encounter one of two situations when it comes to choosing a topic for a research paper. The first situation occurs when the instructor provides a list of topics from which the student may choose. These topics have been deemed worthy by the instructor; therefore, the student should be confident in the topic he chooses from the list. Many first-time researchers appreciate such an arrangement by the instructor because it eliminates the stress of having to decide upon a topic on their own.
However, the student may also find the topics that have been provided to be limiting; moreover, it is not uncommon for the student to have a topic in mind that does not fit with any of those provided. If this is the case, it is always beneficial to approach the instructor with one's ideas. Be respectful, and ask the instructor if the topic you have in mind would be a possible research option for the assignment. Remember, as a first-time researcher, your knowledge of the process is quite limited; the instructor is experienced, and may have very precise reasons for choosing the topics she has offered to the class. Trust that she has the best interests of the class in mind. If she likes the topic, great! If not, do not take it personally and choose the topic from the list that seems most interesting to you.
The second situation occurs when the instructor simply hands out an assignment sheet that covers the logistics of the research paper, but leaves the choice of topic up to the student. Typically, assignments in which students are given the opportunity to choose the topic require the topic to be relevant to some aspect of the course; so, keep this in mind as you begin a course in which you know there will be a research paper near the end. That way, you can be on the lookout for a topic that may interest you. Do not be anxious on account of a perceived lack of authority or knowledge about the topic chosen. Instead, realize that it takes practice to become an experienced researcher in any field.
For a discussion of Evaluating Sources, see Evaluating Sources of Information.
Methods for choosing a topic
Thinking early leads to starting early. If the student begins thinking about possible topics when the assignment is given, she has already begun the arduous, yet rewarding, task of planning and organization. Once she has made the assignment a priority in her mind, she may begin to have ideas throughout the day. Brainstorming is often a successful way for students to get some of these ideas down on paper. Seeing one's ideas in writing is often an impetus for the writing process. Though brainstorming is particularly effective when a topic has been chosen, it can also benefit the student who is unable to narrow a topic. It consists of a timed writing session during which the student jots down—often in list or bulleted form—any ideas that come to his mind. At the end of the timed period, the student will peruse his list for patterns of consistency. If it appears that something seems to be standing out in his mind more than others, it may be wise to pursue this as a topic possibility.
It is important for the student to keep in mind that an initial topic that you come up with may not be the exact topic about which you end up writing. Research topics are often fluid, and dictated more by the student's ongoing research than by the original chosen topic. Such fluidity is common in research, and should be embraced as one of its many characteristics.
The Purdue OWL also offers a number of other resources on choosing and developing a topic:
Top 10 tips to choose an essay topic
Choosing a topic for an essay, research paper or writing assignment can be difficult. Read our tips for some easy ideas will help you improve the scores you find a topic for your essay and help you get a better grade on research papers. Whether its for a college scholarship, an essay, a writing sample or research paper, check our tips and other articles for more ways to improve your essay writing abilities.
How to choose a topic for an essay or research paper
Choosing an essay topic is one of the most important parts of writing a great essay or paper. Many things require essay writing and if you choose the right topic, it will be easier to write your paper and it will automatically be better! College scholarships and applications, high school and middle school research papers, work at a university and jobs all require essays. Here are some tips to help you choose an essay topic or research topic and see our other articles for more help writing papers.
1. Select something that interests you. Your reader can tell if you are interested in your own topic - your enthusiam will show through in your writing. If you don't have a choice about the topic, try to find an angle that could make it interesting to you. If your reader is bored stiff by your paper, you will not receive top marks or you won't get the scholarship. However, a paper that might be a little lacking in other ways (or one that was writtin the night before in an hour) can get bumped up to an A or get selected as the best just because of enthusiasm and passion in the writing.
2. Choose something you know about. Rather than trying to take on a massive project, pick something you already know about to write. It will make the writing process faster and easier because you already have a lot of the information in your head. That means less research on your part, less effort and it will be faster and easier to write the paper.
3. Narrow your topic down to a manageble size, if you have an idea what you want to write about. Whatever your topic is, ask yourself if you can really explore the topic and prove your point in the small amount of space you will have to fill. I know when you're looking at 5, 10 or 20 blank pages to fill, it seems like too much, but the majority of topics are far too big to do justice to in just a few pages. Your first idea will almost always be too big. Keep refining it until its manageable. For example, 'the plays of Shakespeare' is not a topic you want to take on unless you're writing a 1,000-page book. 'Comparisons of strong female characters in Shakespeare's comedies' could be a topic. You could still refine further by selecting perhaps 3 characters to contrast.
4. Find an interesting way to approach a topic. This will keep your writing controlled, give it structure and help you define your thesis. For example, instead of writing about slavery, refine the topic to a particular country, state, time period, or element of slavery. Then refine further. Slavery is not a topic. It's too big. Get an angle, such as 'the life of women enslaved in the South Carolina sea island rice plantations in the early 1800s differed drastically from other manifestations of slavery'. That is examining one element, or one part of slavery, so it is a reasonable topic. Another example: Baseball. That's not a topic. Some specific player's philosophy on practice and how it mainfested in his success could be a topic.
5. Start researching. If you have a vague idea of what you want to write an essay about but you don't know where to go with it or you need to clarify it, get some books from the library and flip through them for ideas. Look for the topic in the news or online. Look for images of the topic online and see what you find. You might find the angle you are looking for.
6. Brain storm. Write a list of ideas you have or write a list of things that interest you. If your topic is what makes a great leader, start writing some words that remind you of a leader or write the names of leaders you admire and why you admire them. Write down some of the topics that are possible. Open a dictionary and flip through, writing down interesting words or ideas that pop out at you. Write down anything that pops into your head and keep writing until you have a good long list. Take a short break and then go back and see if any one idea or a few items pop outas a possibility. If something does, get a new sheet of paper and start brainstorming the idea. Do it right away, when you're energetic so the ideas will flow.
7. Look right in front of you. What do you spend most of your time doing or thinking about? A sports team? A hobby? A goal? A certain game? Often whatever it is that you do in your spare time could be merged into an essay topic. If you play civilization-building games, research the real history behind one of the civiliizations. If you love a certain band, could you research something about their music, or one of the artists who inspired them? Often there are ways to use things you do every day and develop them into an essay or research paper. Just be creative and think out of the box.
8. Ask a teacher, advisor or look online. Stuck for a specific angle? Google the topic and see what other people have written about the topic. Ask a teacher, parent or a respected friend or mentor for some guidance or ideas on what to choose. They will feel flattered that you asked them and will probably give some great ideas.
9. Re-use a topic. Think about whether you have a topic you've written about before that you could re-use for this essay. You may even be able to use sections of what you wrote before or re-use the research. You may be able to just look at a related topic, a different aspect of the same idea. For instance, if you wrote a paper about the history of soccer before, you could write a new one about the popularity of soccer in a certain country, and one section of the essay could be the history of soccer (your old paper condensed). Be careful with this method though. Teachers talk to each other and this might not fly. If the essay was used in a different school or a for a different college class, it might work. If you re-write the paper about a new angle on the new topic, it should be seen as legitimate. If the essay is something such as 'my views on leadership' for a college scholarship or application, by all means, copy and paste it and re-use it.
10. It's the last minute! What do I do? If you can't find anything that thrills you, just pick something and get started. Take your most basic idea and run with it. It will be over soon and you can stop worrying. Or if you have to turn in an essay and thesis statement in advance, just go with your best idea but keep searching for a better one. If you come across something better, most professors will let you change your topic. If you find a great idea, even if you've already written a little, don't hesitate to throw out a few notes and start over. If you are interested in the essay topic, the essay will almost write itself.
More information: We hope this page was helpful and provided you with some information about the top 10 tips to choose an essay topic. Check out our main page for more articles here Can U Write.