When a professor announces a new assignment and tells the class that you will all have to pick a topic to write about, you might feel lost and wish they had simply given you a list to choose from. In academic settings, we’re used to structured assignments where we are told what to do, so when it’s left up to us to decide, we will often have questions like:
- What should I write about?
- What kind of topic are they expecting?
- How will I know I’m on the right track?
Instead of worrying that you’ll do the assignment wrong, see this as an opportunity to write about something that interests you rather than a “stock topic”. If you’re feeling stuck, here are some tips to keep you going on the right track:
- Understand the assignment
Before you start thinking about choosing a topic, it’s important that you have a solid understanding of what the assignment involves and what you’re supposed to be accomplishing with it. Will you be writing an essay or a report? How much research will be involved? Is it an argumentative paper or just explorative? What kind of analysis are they looking for? Having a firm grasp on the purpose and structure of the assignment is crucial so you don’t end up having to change your topic later if it doesn’t suit the genre or criteria of the assignment.
This is a two-fold process to help get you start thinking about possible topics. Brainstorming is simply to get lots of ideas down on paper that you can sort through afterwards. Ask yourself, what sorts of issues exist that this paper could address? Some basic researching can help move this process along; for example, if one of the issues you thought of was “sexism in the workplace”, doing a quick google search might lead you to related topics that could potentially be of interest as well.
- Look for patterns & areas of interest
Now that you have a long list of ideas, it’s time to sort through them. Search for thematic patterns in your ideas and try to organize them into categories. You may find that similar topics came up more often than others, so perhaps focusing on these would be a good idea. Going off the previous example, perhaps you have listed several topics which are centered around issues of gender politics. This type of reflection allows you to think further on what interests you and what you might enjoy writing about.
- Define scope & zoom in
This is a very important yet often overlooked step in the process. Many students fail to narrow down the scope of their topics and end up having papers that are overly generalized. Choosing specific things to focus on in your paper will allow you to conduct a more thorough analysis. This step does not necessarily have to be done before you start writing; in fact, it is common to choose which aspects to focus on as you start writing. Don’t feel like you have to stick with the plan you had going into the paper, because your scope could easily change as you realize what parts are more significant to your assignment than others. Good ways to get you thinking about narrowing your scope include location/demographic/time period of study, or thinking of a smaller subset of an issue.