Bringing That Brilliant Topic Back Down To Earth: How to Choose an Essay Topic

Ever since high school I have been notorious for choosing grandiose topics for major essays and the like. We would be assigned the paper and I would immediately get going on deciding on a topic. The problem is I really did not know how to go about doing that properly.

To give you an example I’m going to go back to my grade 12 Canadian Families summative. The assignment was to write, minimum, a 12 paragraph essay on anything related to the course. If you’ve taken the course then you know this is pretty ambiguous. Essentially we could write about almost anything involving human beings. That’s a pretty big subject to narrow down. I somehow ended up choosing how gender roles are socialized and my plan was to look at it from a nature vs. nurture perspective.

Since this topic, at the time, seemed to have an infinite wealth of information I kind of let it sit on the back burner for awhile.

I had my books and a working thesis of course but not much else, so when it came to writing an outline for the entire essay it came as a huge shock to me to discover that the ambiguity of my topic was keeping me from maintaining one argument over the other.

I ended up running circles around my arguments with each revolution revealing more and more weaknesses in every one of them. The night before the outline was due I had a minor panic attack you could say and completely changed my topic. That evening I went from gender socialization to examining the morality of euthanasia. More of a law topic than sociology, I have no clue how I got my teacher to let me write about that instead. Anyway, I was lucky in that I was able to change my topic on the fly like I did. But, that was high school and in post-secondary the rules of the game have changed.

My final research essay for my pop culture writing course was to choose any subject related to pop culture and write a 1500 word paper about it.

What is it with teachers and these insanely ambiguous assignments?!

Anyway, being so obsessed with the internet I chose YouTube as my topic. I did not really have the most solid concept for the essay when I sent in my working thesis but I had every intention to build on it. At this point it was too late to change my subject so I had to work with it. I finished the paper this past week but as I wrote it my arguments kept getting weaker and weaker. I overestimated the amount of academic information I could use to prove my thesis and by the end my argument was hanging on by a thread. Luckily I got some great editing to strengthen it up a bit but it was, by far, not my best essay.

o, now having written major papers in both high school and college I’ve discovered that my habits have carried over and this is definitely not a good thing so I’ve come up with a few steps for myself that hopefully you too can use when choosing a topic for a paper.

1)   Take your teacher’s suggestions: I’ve noticed that with most assignments I’ve done the teacher will provide a list of possible topics. It never hurts to consider any of these or build off them in your own way. They’re there for a reason.

2)   Use your textbook: The essay that I am most proud to have written (Yes, I am proud of an essay.) was in grade 11 anthropology. I believe the key to my success in writing this essay is that I built on a subject directly from our notes in class (taken right from the textbook). By choosing a subject that you have looked at in class and deciding to take it a step further you are almost guaranteed to find a good deal of relevant information that will help you form a strong argument that you can defend until the cows come home.

3)   Consult your teacher: You’ll usually have a grace period in which you can change your subject so, do some research, get your working thesis done early and then go talk to your prof. Hopefully they’ll have the time to look it over with you. I haven’t had a problem with this at least.

4)   Use the resources at hand: I don’t know of a school that does not have subscriptions to 100’s of databases full of academic and peer reviewed sources. These are always well organized and you can quickly narrow down your search to see if information relevant to your thesis is available.

5)   Be confident: When you finally get down to working with your topic you may feel like it is no longer working for you. If it’s too late to change it then you’re stuck. Do not worry, as long as you catch the problem early you can always look at the topic from a different point of view and develop a new thesis around it.

These all seem like common sense, but when you feel like you have come up with the most brilliant idea ever you are usually blinded by said brilliance and you ignore the bigger picture. Bring yourself back down to earth and look at your choice critically.

Well, like always, good luck with studying, final assignments and exams. Only one more week left for me. It definitely does not feel like the term should be ending but don’t get me wrong, I cannot wait for the holidays and the freedom (however brief) that comes with them.

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