Sometimes a topic for a paper or speech is assigned to you, but other times, you’ll have to find a topic on your own or narrow one you’ve been given. Choosing and refining your topic is crucial to the success of your project.
If your instructor has provided guidelines or requirements regarding your topic, be sure to take them into account. Generally, you’ll either have to pick something related to the course’s subject matter or produce a certain type of writing or speech, such as a persuasive essay or an informative speech. You may also be assigned an audience for your project, which can actually be helpful in selecting your topic as you consider your assigned audience’s interests, experiences, and knowledge.
Once you know the parameters of the assignment, examine your own interests. If you choose a topic you like, you’ll probably do a better job because you’ll be more enthusiastic about the work. It’s smart to select a topic you truly want to know more about.
If you have a general subject area in mind, brainstorm ideas. Make a list of possible topics. Think about the parts of that particular class that have been most interesting to you. Are there areas of the subject you’d like to know more about? Can you link some aspect of the course to your other areas of interest? Another way to proceed is to think about problems that you (or your family or community) face. Could you write about the problem or evaluate solutions? You can also find a topic by looking at current events, gleaning ideas from news sources such as online news sites or magazines.
It can also help to talk about your ideas with a friend or family member. Hearing someone else’s perspective can often broaden the scope of your thinking.
When you find a topic that seems interesting, write down everything you already know about it. Then, ask yourself some questions about it. Why is this subject significant? Who or what is affected by it? Can I break this topic down into smaller parts? Can I find scholarly research about this topic?
Narrowing the Topic
Depending on how many pages or minutes you have, narrow your topic so you can cover it adequately. A common mistake is to pick a broad topic, believing it will be easier to develop, but selecting a topic that’s too large can lead to a final product full of vague generalizations and clichéd ideas.
There are lots of ways to narrow a topic, such as considering the subject through the framework of a certain time, place, or population. For example, let’s say you’re interested in the media’s effect on voter attitudes. You could narrow that topic by limiting your research to a certain time, such as the 2004 elections. You could further limit that to the presidential election and narrow the general term “media” to television commercials (or even one specific commercial). You could also narrow “voters” down to a particular population, such as college students, families with young children, or union members.
Keep in mind that you probably won’t have a thesis until you’ve done at least a little background reading or research. (A thesis is the idea you want to persuade your audience to believe.) Get to know what the major issues and arguments surrounding your topic are before you commit to a thesis.
Researching the Topic
Before you settle on a topic be sure you can find reputable and scholarly sources on it. You might think you can do all the needed research without using the library. Your first impulse will likely be to Google your topic, and certainly that’s a good way to get a feel for it. You may find a Wikipedia entry on it, and by all means check it out. Keep track of any information you find so you can cite it, but you should know that Wikipedia and many of the links you’ll find through Google will probably not be acceptable sources for your assignment.
For most academic writing you’ll need scholarly sources, which typically means a publication that has been peer-reviewed. A peer-reviewed journal, also called a refereed journal, accepts articles for publication only after they’ve been evaluated by other experts in that discipline. The authors of scholarly sources are typically people affiliated with a college or university, and in the articles they write they include documentation for all their sources. Also, scholarly publications are usually nonprofit ventures that don’t accept advertising. JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association is a scholarly source; The New York Times is not.
Talk to a librarian if you need help finding sources.
You can also schedule an appointment at the University Writing Center to talk with a consultant about choosing or refining your topic.