Choosing your essay topic

If you haven’t been given a specific topic for your essay or paper, the first step is coming up with ideas and deciding what you want to write about. Generating ideas is the least methodical and most creative step in academic writing.

There are infinite ways to generate ideas, but no sure-fire way to come up with a good one. This article outlines some tips and techniques for choosing a topic – use the ones that work best for you.

Understanding the assignment

First, you need to determine the scope of what you can write about. Make sure you understand the assignment you’ve been given, and make sure you know the answers to these questions:

  • What is the required length of the paper (in words or pages)?
  • What is the deadline?
  • Should the paper relate to what you’ve studied in class?
  • Do you have to do your own research and use sources that haven’t been taught in class?
  • Are there any constraints on the subject matter or approach?

The length and deadline of the assignment determine how complex your topic can be. The prompt might tell you write a certain type of essay, or it might give you a broad subject area and hint at the kind of approach you should take.

Example: Expository essay prompt
Choose a historically significant invention and explain the key events and processes that contributed to its development.

This prompt gives us a very general subject. It doesn’t ask for a specific type of essay, but the word explain suggests that an expository essay is the most appropriate response.

Example: Argumentative essay prompt
What was the most important invention of the 20th century, and why? Support your argument with evidence from a range of sources.

This prompt takes a different approach to the same subject. It asks a question that requires you to take a strong position. This is an argumentative essay that requires you to use evidence from sources to support your argument.

Techniques for generating topic ideas

Getting started is often the hardest part. Try these 3 simple strategies to help get your mind moving.

Talk it out

Discussing ideas with a teacher, friend or fellow student often helps you find new avenues to approach the ideas you have and helps you uncover ideas you might not have considered.

Brainstorm

Write down as many ideas as you can and make point form notes on them as you go. When you feel you’ve written down the obvious things that relate to an idea, move on to a new one, or explore a related idea in more depth.

You can also cluster related ideas together and draw connections between them on the page.

Free write

This strategy is similar to brainstorming, but it is faster and less reflective. Give yourself a broad topic to write about. Then, on a pad of paper or a word processor, write continuously for two or three minutes. Don’t stop, not even for a moment.

Write down anything that comes to mind, no matter how nonsensical it seems, as long as it somehow relates to the topic you began with. If you need to, time yourself to make sure you write for a few minutes straight.

When you’ve finished, read through what you’ve written and identify any useful ideas that have come out of the exercise.

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Tips for finding a good idea

Whichever strategy you use, you’ll probably come up with lots of ideas, but follow these tips to help you choose the best one.

Don’t feel you need to work logically

Good ideas often have strange origins. An apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head, and this gave us the idea of gravity. Mary Shelley had a dream, and this gave us her famous literary classic, Frankenstein.

It does not matter how you get your idea; what matters is that you find a good one.

Work from general to specific

Your first good idea won’t take the form of a fully-formed thesis statement. Find a topic before you find an argument.

You’ll need to think about your topic in broad, general terms before you can narrow it down and make it more precise.

Maintain momentum

Don’t be critical of your ideas at this stage – it can hinder your creativity. If you think too much about the flaws in your ideas, you will lose momentum.

Creative momentum is important: the first ten in a string of related ideas might be garbage, but the eleventh could be pure gold. You’ll never reach the eleventh if you shut down your thought process at the second.

Let ideas go

Don’t get too attached to the first appealing topic you think of. It might be a great idea, but it also might turn out to be a dud once you start researching and give it some critical thought.

Thinking about a new topic doesn’t mean abandoning an old one – you can easily come back to your original ideas later and decide which ones work best.

Choose a topic that interests you

A bored writer makes for boring writing. Try to find an idea that you’ll enjoy writing about, or a way to integrate your interests with your topic.

In the worst case scenario, pick the least boring topic of all of the boring topics you’re faced with.

Keep a notepad close

Good ideas will cross your mind when you least expect it. When they do, make sure that you can hold onto them.

Many people come up with their best ideas just before falling asleep; you might find it useful to keep a notepad by your bed.

Next steps

Once you’ve settled on an idea, you’ll need to start working on your thesis statement and planning your paper’s structure.

If you find yourself struggling to come up with a good thesis on your topic, it might not be the right choice – you can always change your mind and go back to previous ideas.

Write a thesis statement Make an essay outline

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

2 comments

Neha
August 7, 2020 at 11:23 AM

Loved your writing.

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