When we are given a choice of topics to write on, or are asked to come up with our own topic ideas, we must always make choices that appeal to our own interests, curiosity, and current knowledge. If you decide to write an essay on same sex marriage, for instance, it is obvious that you should make that decision because you are interested in the issue, know something about it already, and/or would like to know more about it. However, because we rarely write solely for our own satisfaction, we must consider matters other than our own interests as we choose topics.
A topic is the main organizing principle of a discussion, either verbal or written. Topics offer us an occasion for speaking or writing and a focus which governs what we say. They are the subject matter of our conversations, and the avenues by which we arrive at other subjects of conversations. Consider, for instance, a recent class discussion. Although your instructor determined what topic you discussed initially, some students probably asked questions that led to other topics. As the subjects of our discussions lead to related subjects, so do the topics we write about lead to related topics in our academic studies. However, unlike the verbal conversations we have, each individual piece of writing we produce usually focuses on a single topic. Most effective writers learn that when they present a well-defined, focused, and developed topic, they do a better job of holding their readers' attention and presenting appropriate information than if they had not attempted to place boundaries on the subject of their writing.
In academic writing, topics are sometimes dictated by the task at hand. Consider, for example, that you must conduct a lab experiment before you can sit down to write a report. Or perhaps you have to run a statistical program to get your data. In these situations, your topic is determined for you: You will write about the results of the work you have completed. Likewise, your instructor may simply hand you a topic to explore or to research. In these situations, you are delivered from both the responsibility and the rewards of choosing your own topic, and your task is to try to develop an interest in what you have been given to write about.
More often, however, you will have a bit more leeway in choosing topics of your own. Sometimes you will be asked to find a topic of interest to you that is grounded in ideas developed in shared class readings and discussions. Other times, your assignment will be anchored even less, and you will be responsible for finding a topic all on your own. Many students find that the more freedom they are given to pursue their own interests, the more intimidated they are by this freedom, and the less certain they are of what really is interesting to them. But writing assignments with open topic options can be excellent opportunities either to explore and research issues that are already concerns for you (and which may even have been topics of earlier writing) or to examine new interests. A well chosen writing topic can lead to the types of research questions that fuel your academic interests for years to come. At the very least, though, topics can be seen as occasions for making your writing relevant and meaningful to your own personal and academic concerns.
Before choosing and narrowing a topic to write about, consider why you are writing and who will read what you write. Your writing purpose and audience often dictate the types of topics that are available to you.
In the workplace, purpose and audience are often defined for you. For instance, you might have to write a memo to a co-worker explaining why a decision was made or compose a letter to a client arguing why the company cannot replace a product. In either case, your purpose and audience are obvious, and your topic is equally evident. As a student, you may have to work a little harder to determine which topics are appropriate for particular purposes and audiences.
Oftentimes, the wording of your assignment sheet will offer clues as to the reasons why you are writing and the audience you are expected to address. Sometimes, when assignment sheets are unclear or when you misunderstand what is expected of you, you will need either to ask your instructor about purpose and audience or to make your own educated guess. However you arrive at the purpose and the audience of your writing, it is important to take these elements into consideration, since they help you to choose and narrow your topic appropriately.
Steve Reid, English Professor
It's important to circle an assignment's key words and then ask the instructor to clarify what these words mean. Every teacher has a different vocabulary. My students always ask me what I'm looking for when I give an assignment. As a writer, you need to know what the words mean in your field and what they mean to your instructor.
Many times, an assignment sheet or verbal assignment given by an instructor will reveal exactly what you are being asked to do. The first step in reviewing an assignment sheet is to circle key words or verbs, such as "explain," "describe," or "evaluate." Then, once you've identified these words, make sure you understand what your instructor means by them. For example, suppose your instructor asks you to describe the events leading up to World War II. This could mean explain how the events prior to World War II helped bring about the beginning of the war, or list every possible cause you think led to the war, or describe and analyze the events. Inquiring before you start writing can help you determine your writing purpose and the expectations of your intended audience (usually your instructor).
Your purpose helps you to narrow a topic, since it demands particular approaches to a general subject. For example, if you're writing about how state policy affects foreign language study in grades K-12 in Oregon, you could have several different purposes. You may need to explain how the Oregon law came about; that is, what influenced it and who was responsible. Or perhaps you would need to explain the law's effects, how curriculum will be altered, etc. Another purpose might be to evaluate the law and to propose changes. Whatever purpose you decide to adopt will determine the questions which give direction to your topic, and (in the case of a research paper) will suggest the type of information you will need to gather in order to address those questions.
Steve Reid, English Professor
You have to be careful so your topic is not too narrow for your audience. You don't want readers to say, " Well, so what? I couldn't care less." One the most important roles a topic plays is impacting an audience. If your topic gets too narrow and too focused, it can become too academic or too pedantic. For example, every year at graduation, I watch people laugh when they hear the title of a thesis or dissertation. The students who wrote these documents were very narrowed and focused, but their audiences were very restricted.
Having a clear idea of the audience to whom you are writing will help you to determine an appropriate topic and how to present it. For example, if you're writing about how state policy affects foreign language study in grades K-12 in Oregon, you could have many different audiences. You could be writing for teachers, administrators at a specific school, students whose educational program will be affected by the law, or even the PTA. All of these audiences care about the topic since they are all affected by it. However, for each of them you may need to provide different information and address slightly different questions about this topic. Teachers would want to know why the policy was created and how it will affect what goes on in their classrooms. Parents will want to know what languages their children will be taught and why. Administrators will want to know how this will change the curriculum and what work will be required of them as a result. Knowing your audience requires you to adapt and limit your topic so that you are presenting information appropriate to a specific group of interested readers.
Most writers in the workplace don't have to think about what's workable and what's not when they write. Writing topics make themselves obvious, being the necessary outcome of particular processes. For example, meetings inspire memos and minutes; research produces reports; interactions with customers result in letters. As a student writer, your task is often more difficult than this, since topics do not always "find you" this easily.
Finding and selecting topics are oftentimes arduous tasks for the writer. Sometimes you will find yourself facing the "blank page" or "empty screen" dilemma, lacking topic ideas entirely. Other times you will have difficulties making your ideas fit a particular assignment you have been given. This section on "Choosing a Workable Topic" addresses both of these problems, offering both general strategies for generating topic ideas and strategies for finding topics appropriate to particular types of writing assignments that students frequently encounter.
Don Zimmerman, Journalism and Technical Communication Professor
I look at topics from a problem solving perspective and scientific method. Topics emerge from writers working on the job when they're in the profession, following major trends, developments, issues, etc. From the scientific perspective, topics emerge based on solid literature reviews and developing an understanding of the paradigm. From these then come the specific problems/topics/subjects that professionals or scientists address.
Writers generate topics from their professional expertise, their understanding of the issues in their respective disciplines, and their understanding the science that has gone before them.
While your first impulse may be to dash off to the library to dig through books and journals once you've received an assignment, you might also consider other information sources available to you.
Most topic searches start with a subject. For example, you're interested in writing about languages, and even more specifically, foreign languages. This is a general subject. Within a general subject, you'll find millions of topics. Not only about every foreign language ever spoken, but also about hundreds of issues affecting foreign languages. But keep in mind that a subject search is always a good place to start.
Every time you use Yahoo or other Internet search engines, or even SAGE at the CSU library, you conduct a subject search. These search devices allow you to review many topics within a broad subject area. While it's beneficial to conduct subject searches, because you never know what valuable information you'll uncover, a subject always needs to be narrowed to a specific topic. This way, you can avoid writing a lengthy book and focus instead on the short research paper you've been assigned.
Kate Kiefer, English Professor
Most often the occasion dictates the topic for the writing done outside academe. But as a writer in school, you do sometimes have to generate topics. If you need help determining a topic, create an authority list of things you have some expertise in or a general list of areas you know something about and are interested in. Then, you can make this list more specific by considering how much you know and care about these ideas and what the target audience is probably interested in reading about.
In looking for writing topics, the logical first step is to consider issues or subjects which have concerned you in the past, either on the basis of life experience or prior writing/research. If you are a journal writer, look to your journal for ideas. If not, think about writing you have done for other writing assignments or for other classes. Though it is obviously not acceptable to recycle old essays you have written before, it is more than acceptable (even advisable) to return to and to extend topics you have written about in the past. Returning to the issues that concern you perennially is ultimately what good scholarship is all about.
Before attempting to choose or narrow a topic, you need to have some ideas to choose from. This can be a problem if you are suffering from the "blank page or screen" syndrome, and have not even any initial, general ideas for writing topics.
As writers, some of our best ideas occur to us when we are thinking in a very informal, uninhibited way. Though we often think of brainstorming as a way for groups to come up with ideas, it is a strategy that individual writers can make use of as well. Simply put, brainstorming is the process of listing rough thoughts (in any form they occur to you: words, phrases, or complete sentences) that are connected (even remotely) to the writing assignment you have before you or the subject area you already have in mind. Brainstorming works best when you give yourself a set amount of time (perhaps five or ten minutes), writing down anything that comes to mind within that period of time, and resisting the temptation to criticize or polish your own ideas as they hit the page. There is time for examination and polishing when the five or ten minutes are over.
Freewriting is a technique much like brainstorming, only the ideas generated are written down in paragraph rather than list form. When you freewrite, you allow yourself a set amount of time (perhaps five or ten minutes), and you write down any and every idea that comes to mind as if you are writing a timed essay. However, your freewrite is unlikely to read like an organized essay. In fact, it shouldn't read that way. What is most important about freewriting is that you write continuously, not stopping to check your spelling, to find the right word, or even to think about how your ideas are fitting together. If you are unable to think of something to write, simply jot out, "I can't think of anything to write now," and go on. At the end of your five or ten minutes, reread what you have written, ignore everything that seems unimportant or ridiculous, and give attention to whatever ideas you think are worth pursuing. If you are able to avoid checking yourself while you are writing for that short time, you will probably be surprised at the number of ideas that you already have.
Clustering is a way of visually "mapping" your ideas on paper. It is a technique which works well for people who are able to best understand relationships between ideas by seeing the way they play themselves out spatially. (If you prefer reading maps to reading written directions, clustering may be the strategy for you.) Unlike formal outlining, which tends to be very linear, clustering allows you to explore the way ideas sprawl in different directions. When one thought leads to another, you can place that idea on the "map" in its appropriate place. And if you want to change its position later, and connect it with another idea, you can do so. (It is always a good idea to use a pencil rather than a pen for clustering, for this very reason.)
This is a good strategy not only for generating ideas, but also for determining how much you have to say about a topic (or topics), and how related or scattered your ideas are.
Sometimes your ways of generating topics will depend on the type of writing assignment you have been given. Here are some ideas of strategies you can use in finding topics for some of the more common types of writing assignments:
The great challenge of using personal experience in essays is trying to remember the kinds of significant events, places, people, or objects that would prove to be interesting and appropriate topics for writing. Brainstorming, freewriting, or clustering ideas in particular ways can give you a starting point.
Here are a few ways that you might trigger your memory:
Interview people you've known for a long time.Family members, friends, and other significant people in your life can remember important details and events that you haven't thought about for years.
Try to remember events from a particular time in your life. Old yearbooks, journals, and newspapers and magazines can help to trigger some of these memories.
Think about times of particular fulfillment or adversity. These "extremes" in your experience are often easily recalled and productively discussed. When have you had to make difficult choices, for instance? When have you undergone ethical struggles? When have you felt most successful?
Think about the groups you have encountered at various times in your life. When have you felt most like you belonged to or were excluded from groups of people: your family, cliques in school, clubs, "tracked" groups in elementary school, religious groups, or any other community/organization you have had contact with?
Think about the people or events that "changed your life." What are the forces that have most significantly influenced and shaped you? What are the circumstances surrounding academic, career, or relationship choices that you have made? What changes have you dealt with that have been most painful or most satisfying?
Try to remember any "firsts" in your experience.What was your first day of high school like? What was it like to travel far from home for the first time? What was your first hobby or interest as a child? What was the first book you checked out of the library? These "firsts," when you are able to remember them, can prove to have tremendous significance.
One word of caution on writing about personal experience: Keep in mind that any essay you write for a class will most likely be read by others, and will probably be evaluated on criteria other than your topic's importance to you. Never feel like you need to "confess," dredge up painful memories, or tell stories that are uncomfortable to you in academic writing. Save these topics for your own personal journal unless you are certain that you are able to distance yourself from them enough to handle the response that comes from instructors (and sometimes from peers).
Students are often asked to respond to or interpret essays, articles, books, stories, poems, and a variety of other texts. Sometimes your instructor will ask you to respond to one particular reading, other times you will have a choice of class readings, and still other times you will need to choose a reading on your own.
If you are given a choice of texts to respond to or to interpret, it is a good idea to choose one which is complex enough to hold your interest in the process of careful examination. It is not necessarily a problem if you do not completely understand a text on first reading it. What matters is that it challenges, intrigues, and/or evokes response from you in some way.
One of the most common writing assignments given is some variation on the Arguing Essay, in which students are asked to take a position on a controversial issue. There are two challenges involved in finding topics for argument. One challenge is identifying a topic that you are truly interested in and concerned about, enough so that whatever research is required will be engrossing (or at the very least, tolerable), and not a tedious, painful ordeal. In other words, you want to try to avoid arriving at the "So what?" point with your own topic. The other challenge is in making sure that your audience doesn't respond, "So what?" in reading your approach to your topic. You can avoid this by making sure that the questions you are asking and addressing are current and interesting.
Although some essays that students are asked to write are to be based solely on their own thoughts and experience, oftentimes (particularly in upper level courses) writing assignments require research. When scoping out possible research topics, it is important to remember to choose a topic which will sustain your interest throughout the research and writing process. The best research topics are those which are complex enough that they offer opportunities for various research questions. You want to avoid choosing a topic that could bore you easily, or that is easily researched but not very interesting to you.
As always, it is good to start searching for a topic within your personal interests and previous writing. You might want to choose a research topic that you have pursued before and do additional research, or you might want to select a topic about which you would like to know more. More than anything, writers must remember that research will often carry them in different directions than they intend to go, and that they must be flexible enough to acknowledge that their research questions and topics must sometimes be adjusted or abandoned. To read more on narrowing and adjusting a research topic, see the section in this guide on Research Considerations.
Students are often asked to write essays in which they evaluate something: a product, a piece of writing, a restaurant, an advertising campaign, or some other entity related to their areas of study. Sometimes when you are given this type of writing assignment, you are also given a very specific topic on which to write. Other times, you are asked to find a topic for evaluation on your own.
As a writer, you will sometimes be asked to speculate on possible solutions to known problems. Although the process of problem solving is itself quite difficult, one of the greatest challenges about that process is the matter of finding a topic that lends itself to your purpose.
In order to choose a topic, you need to have several available to choose from. It is best to avoid being committed to one topic at this first stage of the writing process, since not every topic will pan out. Writers are usually more successful when they have a selection of topics which they can put to the test to determine whether or not they are workable (given the writing assignment).
The scope of a topic depends on how much time and space you have to write and how much detail you are trying to use. For example, describing all the causes of World War II in three pages is impossible. You would have to either narrow your topic some more or write hundreds of pages to adequately discuss every cause. Defining your topic before you start writing will save you time and help you to research and/or to develop your thinking in a clear, methodical way.
It is important to examine the topics we choose to determine whether they are too broad (or, in some instances, too narrow) for the writing assignments we are given. Once you have decided that a topic is too broad to be appropriate to your assignment (which is most often the case), you will need to have ways to narrow it. You will also want to consider, when writing essays that require research, how your research resources and limitations affect your choice of topics.
Kate Kiefer, English Professor
If a writer doesn't present details quickly enough, then the topic is usually too broad. If the reader can expect the paper to go in one direction, but it goes in another, the topic is usually too broad or not stated precisely enough. If I can ask six million questions about whether the writer will include this or that point, the topic is too broad. If I do a library search and turn up 200 listings (or an Internet search and discover 1,000 hits), the topic is too broad.
A topic is too broad to be workable when you find that you have too many different (but oftentimes remotely related) ideas about that topic. While you want to start the writing process with as many ideas as possible, you will want to narrow your focus at some point so that you aren't attempting to do too much in one essay.
Where essays requiring research are concerned, your topic is too broad if you are able to find thousands of sources when conducting a simple library or Internet search. For example, conducting a search on "foreign languages in Oregon" will provide you with policies, foreign language departments, and cultural issues (just to name a few). When this happens, you can try various narrowing strategies to determine what most interests you about your topic area and what relates to your own life most readily. For instance, if you plan to study abroad, focusing on the language you'll be speaking might be a way to narrow the scope of your original topic, "foreign languages in Oregon."
Steve Reid, English Professor
You have to careful so your topic is not too narrow for your audience. You don't want readers to say, " Well, so what? I couldn't care less." One the most important roles a topic plays is impacting an audience. If you get so narrowed and focused, a topic can become too academic or pedantic. For example, every year at graduation I watch people laugh when they hear the title of a thesis or dissertation. The students who wrote these documents were very narrowed and focused, but their audiences were very restricted.
Though student writers most often face the challenge of limiting a topic that is too broad, they occasionally have to recognize that they have chosen a topic that is too narrow or that they have narrowed a workable topic too much. A topic is too narrow if you can't find any information about it. For example, suppose your foreign language subject to, "foreign language policy in South Dakota." Although you might have a strong interest in this topic, South Dakota may not have a specific policy about foreign languages. If you have chosen the topic, "teaching Chinese in elementary schools," and your research attempts have been fruitless, it may be that you are considering a topic that no one else has previously presented. In other words, no one has determined that Chinese should be a major language taught as commonly as Spanish or French. If this happens to be the case, keep your topic in mind, because it could very well be an excellent topic for a graduate thesis or dissertation. However, it is also likely to be a difficult topic to handle in a ten-page essay for an education class, due in two weeks.
If your topic is too narrow, try making it broader by asking yourself related questions.
Once you've found a different direction in which to move with your topic, you can try narrowing it again.
One of the first things writers do when they realize that they need to narrow the scope of their topic is to ask themselves the "w" questions so familiar to journalists: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? (and oftentimes, How?) These questions can help you locate your specific points of interest within your general topic area. For example, to narrow a topic like "foreign languages," you could begin with the "what" and "when" questions and decide you are interested in "foreign language studies in grades K-12." Asking the "where" question, you might arrive at "foreign language studies in grades K-12 in Oregon." And asking the "who" question might cause you to limit the topic again to "state policy regarding foreign language studies in grades K-12 in Oregon." Each time you add something specific to your topic, you place "restrictors" on it, thereby narrowing it. Then, when you conduct a library or Internet search, you can use these "restrictors" as key words.
If your writing assignment requires research, you will probably find that the research process itself will dictate how broad or narrow your topic should be. We have all had the experience of doing a library search on a word like "environment" and coming up with thousands of sources. Almost as common is the experience of searching a term like "cultural animation" and coming up with only one source that seems useful. The topics we choose are often directly related to our research processes and their results.
It is important to remember that a narrow topic is not the same thing as a thesis statement. Unlike a topic, a thesis makes a claim of fact, provides a claim of value, or makes a recommendation about a topic under consideration. For example, your narrowed topic might be "the underemphasis on foreign language in U.S. secondary schools." A focused thesis statement making a claim about this topic might read, "U.S. secondary schools should require elementary students to take at least one course in a foreign language sometime during the 4th through 6th grades."
Transforming a workable topic into a possible thesis is really just a continuation of the narrowing process, with an emphasis on what you want to say about your topic. In this way, it is much like the "hypothesis" stage of the scientific method. You arrive at a thesis by attempting to make a statement about the topic you have chosen.
A working thesis is a tentative statement that you make about your topic early in the writing process, for the purpose of directing your thinking early. This thesis is likely to change somewhat or to be abandoned altogether as you move through the writing process, so it is best not to become too enamored of it.
There are two components of a working thesis. The first is, quite simply, your topic; and the second is your tentative statement about your topic. For example, if my narrowed topic is
"Rising property taxes in small towns in the Rocky Mountain region..."
I might add the following statement about that topic:
"...cause longtime residents and landowners in those towns not to be able to keep their property."
As I begin whatever research is necessary to support this thesis, I might find that I can't make this much of a claim. Or I might find that there are complexities that I hadn't considered. As I uncover new information about my topic, I will want to alter my working thesis accordingly, until it is workable and supportable.
A In The St. Martin's Handbook, Third Edition [italics], Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors suggest a process for moving from a topic to a research "hypothesis," by way of examining the "issue" at hand and framing this issue as a "research question." The following is an example of how I might move from topic to hypothesis if my narrowed topic is "rising property taxes in small towns in the Rocky Mountain region."
This hypothesis, like a working thesis, is simply an early speculation on what I might find when I begin to research. As I read more and more about my topic, I will probably find that I need to make changes to the hypothesis in order to make it a supportable thesis. As I uncover new information about my topic, I will want to alter my working thesis accordingly, until it is workable and supportable.
One of the greatest challenges in written argument is determining what it is that you would like to (and are able to) say about your topic.
Before you begin drafting an argument paper, you need to decide (tentatively, at least) what it is that you will be arguing about the topic you have chosen. The following prompts should help you focus your argument from a topic to a position on that topic.
What is your topic? (e.g.--Rising property taxes in small towns in the Rocky Mountain region)
What are three controversies associated with this topic? (e.g.--Rising property taxes make the town affordable only to the wealthy. This changes the flavor the flavor of the town. It forces long-time land owners to sell their land.)
What are three questions people might ask about these controversies? (e.g.--Are these rising property taxes, which are the results of development in small towns in the Rocky Mountain region, forcing long-time land owners out of their home towns? Are rising taxes and land values changing the whole cultural and economic foundation of the towns? Given the effects of rising property taxes on impoverished land owners in small towns, is development in this area a good idea?)
Decide which of these questions you are most interesting in exploring. (e.g.--Given the effects of rising property taxes on impoverished land owners in small towns, is development in this area a good idea?)
Now list several ways people might respond if you asked them your question. (e.g.--No, because impoverished land owners are unable to maintain the new standard of living. Yes, because development is always a good idea. Yes, because development is inevitable, and we can do nothing about it. Perhaps, but city planners and local government must find ways to protect the interests of impoverished land owners when they determine property taxes.)
Finally, decide where you stand in this range of responses. Think of a thesis that expresses your view. Write out your thesis and revise it throughout your research process until it is specific and takes a single arguable position. (e.g.--Because impoverished land owners in small towns in the Rocky Mountain region are often badly hurt by the rising property taxes resulting from development, city planners and local government must find ways to protect the interests of these land owners when they determine property taxes.)
Don Zimmerman, Journalism and Technical Communication Professor
Writers' understanding of topics and their fields of study allow them to focus on a specific topic. Following a good problem solving process or scientific method can help you select a topic. Whereas on the job, topics emerge from day to day activities. When working, you don't need to look for topics to write about. Your respective field/job responsibilities allow you to find the problems.
The ways that topics are approached and the types of topics that are discussed vary from discipline to discipline. It is important to investigate the types of topics that are discussed (and the ways that they are discussed) in your own discipline.
As a writer, it is necessary to determine what topics are talked about and why in your own discipline (or in the discipline for which you are writing). This can be done by way of talking to professionals in the discipline, looking at relevant journals, and conducting Internet and database searches (to name a few possibilities).
Lauel Nesbitt and Dawn Kowalski. (1994-2021). Choosing and Refining Topics . The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/writing/guides/.