Academic Resources

Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Choosing the Right Topic

Chapter 2: Section 2, Lesson 3

How do you feel when instructors say, Write on a topic of your choice? Maybe they give you some loose guidelines and a general area to focus on, but that's it. For some students, this is liberating! They can write about something that matters to them. No problem!

But for some students, the idea of having to narrow down to a specific topic can be very stressful. You want a good grade, but you don't want to choose something that’s too difficult to write about—or too simple. On top of that, you want to choose a topic that you actually like and want to talk about. Hang in there! There are some strategies to help you.

Before You Select a Topic
First, look carefully at the information your instructor has provided. Even when the specific assignment is not defined, your assignment information is likely to help you get started:

What is the purpose of your paper? Take a look at what your assignment is asking you to do. Look carefully at the description, often called the prompt. (See Analyzing the Prompt for more on this topic.) Does it ask you to describe, evaluate, analyze, argue, discuss, identify, define, compare/contrast, or explain? These words are clues as to how you approach your topic, and they help identify your overall purpose for writing.

For example, let's say you're supposed to write about something that has to do with the environment, and you've been told you need to describe. This paper will be very different than one whose purpose is to argue. A descriptive paper might simply set out the sights, sounds, and smells of a city’s pollution problem; an argument essay on the same general topic might press for more public transportation as a means of reducing pollution.

So, look for those key, instructive words in your assignment. If they are not there, and you're not sure what your purpose is, ask your instructor to provide more information.

You'll also need to think about your audience. Does your assignment sheet indicate a particular audience, such as your fellow classmates, readers of the local newspaper, or a state representative? If your assignment doesn’t specify your audience (sometimes it won't), you have to figure out who you are writing for based on components of the assignment.

For example, if you’re writing an argumentative essay about your solution to an on-campus parking problem, you may want to tailor your writing to administrators who make decisions about parking. Or you may want to convince fellow students to campaign for this solution in order to initiate change in the current parking situation. Knowing who your audience is can really help you narrow your focus. (See Analyzing Your Audience and Audience Types for more about writing for a particular audience.)

Narrow Versus Broad
Next, you need to decide if your idea for a topic is too broad or too narrow for the assignment specifications. Let's say you have to write a 2-3-page informative essay. You decide to write an essay on dog training.

Because this explanation is such a broad topic, you would not be able to cover the material adequately in 2-3 pages. (Entire books are written on this topic.) Likewise, if you choose to write only about a single part of one training system, you may not have enough material to talk about in 2-3 pages because your topic is too narrow.

To make this fit the assignment specifications, you might, however, consider developing a discussion on one training method, its history, what critics have to say, and how it works.

Moving from General Topic to Specific Focus
Once you've carefully studied the assignment and understand the basic guidelines, you'll need to find a way to move from general topic ideas to a specific focus.

Start by finding a topic that interests you but also falls into the expectations for the assignment. There’s a lot of information on genetically modified foods, for example. How much does that topic interest you, though? How much do you care about it? If you choose something that interests you, you’ll most likely write a better paper because you actually care about the topic.

If you only have a general assignment, one way to narrow it down is to research and learn more about the general topic. You can use both the Internet and the library in order to find out more about your topic and narrow your field. You can also discuss your general topic with other people in order to discover new ideas and to think about it in a way that you might not have considered. For more information about research, check out Completing the Research Process, Using the Library Wisely, Conducting Field Research, and Using the Internet Wisely.

Let’s say your instructor has told you to write anything as long as it’s descriptive and has to do with architecture. You don't know much about architecture, but you know you usually like modern things. You do a search for "modern architecture." You see something about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright that interests you, and then you see a photograph of a house he designed.

Since you know that you’re supposed to describe, and now you know you're going to be writing about Frank Lloyd Wright, you might want to look for one of Wright's designs or houses that you could describe. You could ask your librarian for help in finding books or magazines about Wright. In this way, research can help you get a better idea of the general field you will be working in and lead you to a specific topic.

You can use brainstorming in order to help you narrow your topic and find a focus. This technique works particularly well when you're writing an essay that's based on your own experience. Brainstorming is an "invention method"; when you brainstorm, you use your imagination and think freely in order to generate ideas.

Let’s say your instructor has asked you to write about a “memorable experience.” Your first thought is I have some experiences that seem big to me, but I don't know if they're that important or memorable. How do I know what’s memorable or not?

Give yourself ten minutes to brainstorm. Start with a blank document and put your general topic at the top of the page. Then, without censoring yourself (don’t worry about what’s right or wrong or seems silly), list every experience that comes to mind. Once you've run out of steam, look back at your list and choose the memory that stands out to you.

Then, begin brainstorming again—this time with just that memory at the top of your page. The memory can become the topic, and the details on your second list can become some of the points you introduce or use in your essay. To consider more ways to brainstorm, see Using Invention Methods.

Think About it

  • What do you really want to discuss? What are you passionate about?
  • What is your purpose for writing? What do you have to do?
  • Who is your intended audience?
  • What is the scope of your essay?
  • How can you refine your focus?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you’ll be on your way to choosing the right topic!