How to Choose an Essay Topic
Choosing an essay topic is one of the most important parts of writing a great essay or research paper. Essay writing requires many things and if you choose the right topic, it will be easier to write your paper and it will be better overall! College scholarships and applications, high school and middle school research papers, work at a university and jobs all require writing essays. Here are some tips to help you choose an essay topic or research paper topic and see our other tips for more help in paper writing.
Essay Topics and Ideas
- Anthropology Essay Topics
- Communication Essay Topics
- History Essay Topics
- Literature Essay Topics
- Philosophy Essay Topics
- Political Science Essay Topics
- Psychology Essay Topics
- Religion Essay Topics
- Sociology Essay Topics
If the Topic Has Been Assigned by Instructor
You may have no choice as to your topic. If this is the case, you still may not be ready to jump to the next step.
Think about the type of paper you are expected to produce. Should it be a general overview, or a specific analysis of the topic? If it should be an overview, then you are probably ready to move to the next step. If it should be a specific analysis, make sure your topic is fairly specific. If it is too general, you must choose a narrower subtopic to discuss.
For example, the topic “Sociology” is a general one. If your objective is to write an overview, this topic is suitable. If your objective is to write a specific analysis, this topic is too general. You must narrow it to something like “Social Problems” or further to “Death Penalty as a Social Problem.”
Once you have determined that your topic will be suitable, you can move on with writing your essay or research paper.
If the Topic Has Not Been Assigned
If you have not been assigned a topic, then the whole world lies before you. Sometimes that seems to make the task of starting even more intimidating. Actually, this means that you are free to choose a topic of interest to you, which will often make your essay a stronger one.
Define Your Purpose
The first thing you must do is think about the purpose of the essay you must write. Is your purpose to persuade people to believe as you do, to explain to people how to complete a particular task, to educate people about some person, place, thing or idea, or something else entirely? Whatever topic you choose must fit that purpose.
Many instructors write their assignment prompts differently. By following a few steps, you can better understand the requirements for the assignment. The best way, as always, is to ask the instructor about anything confusing.
- Read the prompt the entire way through once. This gives you an overall view of what is going on.
- Underline or circle the portions that you absolutely must know. This information may include due date, research (source) requirements, page length, and format (MLA, APA, CMS).
- Underline or circle important phrases. You should know your instructor at least a little by now – what phrases does she use in class? Does he repeatedly say a specific word? If these are in the prompt, you know the instructor wants you to use them in the assignment.
- Think about how you will address the prompt. The prompt contains clues on how to write the assignment. Your instructor will often describe the ideas she wants discussed either in questions, in bullet points, or in the text of the prompt. Think about each of these sentences and number them so that you can write a paragraph or section of your essay on that portion if necessary.
- Rank ideas in descending order, from most important to least important.Instructors may include more questions or talking points than you can cover in your assignment, so rank them in the order you think is more important. One area of the prompt may be more interesting to you than another.
- Ask your instructor questions if you have any.
After you are finished with these steps, ask yourself the following:
- What is the purpose of this assignment? Is my purpose to provide information without forming an argument, to construct an argument based on research, or analyze a poem and discuss its imagery?
- Who is my audience? Is my instructor my only audience? Who else might read this? Will it be posted online? What are my readers’ needs and expectations?
- What resources do I need to begin work? Do I need to conduct literature (hermeneutic or historical) research, or do I need to review important literature on the topic and then conduct empirical research, such as a survey or an observation? How many sources are required?
- Who – beyond my instructor – can I contact to help me if I have questions? Do you have a writing lab or student service center that offers tutorials in writing?
Brainstorm Subjects of Interest
Once you have determined the purpose of your essay, write down some subjects that interest you. No matter what the purpose of your essay is, an endless number of topics will be suitable.
If you have trouble thinking of subjects, start by looking around you. Is there anything in your surroundings that interests you? Think about your life. What occupies most of your time? That might make for a good topic. Don’t evaluate the subjects yet; just write down anything that springs to mind.
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.
10 Tips for Choosing an Essay Topic
1. Select something that interests you
Your reader can tell if you are interested in your own topic – your enthusiasm 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 written 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 manageable 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 manifested 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.
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 civilizations. 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.
Evaluate Each Potential Topic
If you can think of at least a few topics that would be appropriate, you must simply consider each one individually. Think about how you feel about that topic. If you must educate, be sure it is a subject about which you are particularly well-informed. If you must persuade, be sure it is a subject about which you are at least moderately passionate. Of course, the most important factor in choosing a topic is the number of ideas you have about that topic.
Even if none of the subjects you thought of seem particularly appealing, try just choosing one to work with. It may turn out to be a better topic than you at first thought.
Before you are ready to move on in the essay-writing process, look one more time at the topic you have selected. Think about the type of paper you are expected to produce. Should it be a general overview, or a specific analysis of the topic? If it should be an overview, then you are probably ready to move to the next step. If it should be a specific analysis, make sure your topic is fairly specific. If it is too general, you must choose a narrower subtopic to discuss.
How to Test Your Topic
Once you think you’ve hit upon a unique topic that you are interested in, think about how it might work for your assignment. Some things to consider include:
- Will it fit in the parameters of the assignment?
- Will I be able to find reliable sources (if required) to support my argument?
- Is the topic too broad for a short essay?
- Is the topic too narrow for a longer essay?
- Is it a timely topic, or have I read or heard about this topic for years?
You might even consider asking your instructor if the topic might make a good essay for your class paper. Many instructors require topic approval before you begin.
Once you’ve hit upon a unique and interesting essay topic, you’ll find that you’ll not only be more enthusiastic about writing the paper, but the audience response will be more enthusiastic as well, and the paper will almost write itself.