Students: Like it or not, no matter your field of study, you will find yourself faced with the task of writing papers repeatedly before you graduate. You may even find yourself in a career where you write frequently (even when you might not expect it with things like engineering reports, executive summaries, and grant proposals).
Writing is never easy; even professional writers and academics, people who have chosen careers with hefty writing requirements, can struggle mightily to get it done. In today’s post, I’ll write about an early potential stumbling block you may encounter on your writing , choosing a topic, and offer tips for choosing wisely.
Understand the Assignment
Before you decide on a topic, be sure you understand what you are being asked to do and what sort of topic would fit. In a literature class, the assignment may be to critically analyze a text or multiple texts. In history, you may be asked to show how political events in a particular time and place affected some aspect of daily life. In the hard sciences, you may be asked to conduct a research project and write about it.
Hint: If the assignment is a research paper, your focus will not be on summarizing, describing a chronology of events, or defining terms. Research papers involve higher-order thinking (analysis, interpretation, application), and your topic needs to be one that requires such thinking. You must go beyond the Wikipedia entry on a topic!
Always remember, if you are not sure what you are being asked to do, you are probably not alone. So, go ahead and ask your instructor. That’s why they get paid.
Consider Your Interests
Once you understand the assignment, find an angle you can relate to or that fascinates you. Any task is easier if you are interested in it (duh). You will be more excited about conducting effective research (like a treasure hunt!) and you will make your arguments more passionately and authentically (like a closing statement in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit!) if you truly believe in your topic. You can even write a good paper you don’t agree with as long as you are interested.
And if you find yourself saying “But I had to take this class, and it’s boring,” stop right there. Children on rainy days with no one to play with must learn the lesson that focusing on being bored guarantees boredom. Not sure where to start? Look over your notes, textbook, and other course materials with an open mind for ideas and information that tug at your attention.
Keep Your Focus Narrow
The first time a teacher told me my topic was too broad, I was taken aback. Up until that point, I thought the challenge in writing was not having anything to say, so this idea of having too much to say was strange.
If the first topic you think of seems too broad, look for a narrower way to look at it or a smaller piece of it. A professor I know gave me a good example. Imagine you want to write a paper related to nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs). That’s a big topic, and you can’t possible delve into significant analysis or interpretation if you consider all of the NWFZs on Earth (especially not in 15 pages). So, just choose one such zone. You can offer some basic information about the zone in a few introductory paragraphs, leaving plenty of your paper to get into the specifics of your thesis.
One thing that can help, once you think you’ve got an idea, is to outline your potential essay. If you can come up with several juicy subpoints to back up your main argument, you are in good shape. If you struggle to come up with a single subpoint, it is probably a sign you need a different topic.
Do a Little Preliminary Research
As you consider your possible topic, you need to make sure that you have both good points to make about your topic and evidence to back them up. Doing a bit of preliminary research before you commit to a topic will help you be sure this is the case. Coming up with keywords related to your topic and searching for those in your university system’s database will help you easily find resources. If your search doesn’t yield much, consider whether the issue is poorly chosen keywords (and try another search with new ones) or a bad topic.
It’s good practice to make sure your evidence is based on multiple viewpoints. A counterpoint to your argument can often help you make your point quite effectively.
Taking the time to choose your paper topic wisely is one of several good writing habits to get into early in your academic career. If you take the time to come up with a good topic, chances are you and your instructor will be much more satisfied with your final product, and your grade.
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