5 Strategies for Picking a Paper Topic
Alex Clifton, Consultant
It’s never too early in the semester to start thinking about paper topics. Trust me, it’s much easier to write your essays in March or April when you’ve already thought about and researched a topic over the course of weeks, rather than deciding to write about something three days before it’s due. I’ve done the latter, and it’s produced some sleepless nights and shoddy writing—something you definitely want to avoid! However, it can be difficult to determine what exactly you want to write about. The following strategies will, hopefully, jumpstart some thought and give you ideas for any classes you’re struggling in!
Make a list. If you look over the syllabus of a course and realize that nothing quite “speaks” to you immediately, make a list of subject areas you know you’re interested in. Are you into feminist theory? Do you enjoy researching murders in South America? Are you more interested in the political or economic aspects of the Russian Revolution? These questions sound silly, but if you think about things you’re interested in, a paper topic might spark from that. I once took a course on the Civil War and did not find myself enamoured with the books on the syllabus. However, I knew I liked writing about gender and children’s literature, and ended up writing a fun paper on children’s stories during the Civil War! Reminding yourself what your interests are will also help you come up with a topic that you will be far more invested in—which will make your final paper a lot more fun to write.
Preliminary research. It might sound boring, but typing in keywords into the library’s database (WorldCat, located here) can provide a wealth of information and ideas. Not only is it a good way to find scholarly and reliable sources, but those books can also give you an idea of the scholarship out there! WorldCat has a really handy feature where you can click on a book and it will tell you the chapter/essay titles within the book. If you’re trying to do a paper on Arctic exploration, you might end up finding an essay on John Rae, a Scottish doctor who discovered the grisly fate of the doomed Franklin expedition from 1848, that focuses on his skills with snowshoeing, which might spark some interest in nineteenth-century Inuit methods of snow travel. Yeah, it’s an extreme example, but WorldCat is such a great resource and you don’t even need to have a defined paper topic to use it!
Talk it out. If you’re really struggling to come up with a paper topic, it might help to brainstorm verbally with some friends. If you talk to a friend or two from your course, you might discover new ways of looking at the subject material that may trigger some interest. Maybe one of your friends is writing on Bosnian familial structures, and somehow their own thoughts inspire you to look up Bosnian recipes for a paper in a course on Bosnian culture. Sometimes, it also helps to talk to a friend from outside your course, as they may act as an impartial observer to your thoughts and can ask probing questions. If you don’t want to ask your friends for help, try talking to your professor. I have yet to have a professor at UofL who has been totally unwilling to help students, especially when it’s clear that the student is making an effort. (If you’re asking for help about brainstorming a paper topic way before it’s due, that shows you’re making an effort!) Some professors may seem scary and unapproachable in class, but I’ve found that they are less likely to bite during office hours. Your professor might also be able to look at your academic interests and help guide you towards a topic that they deem suitable and you’ll find interesting, a win-win for all!
Freewrite. Yeah, nobody wants to think about writing when they’re working on finding a topic to write on. It’s a dirty secret of research that you’re going to have to do a lot more writing than you ever planned on in order to come up with that glorious final paper. It sometimes helps to just write down things you’ve considered researching and listing ways you could flesh out each topic. Sometimes, seeing your own ideas out on paper can help make paper topics more concrete, rather than just thinking about what you might write about—it makes your ideas far more concrete, and puts you down the road for academic success!
Come in to the writing center. Last, but not least, if you’re really struggling with starting on a paper, come in to the writing center and talk to one of our consultants. Everyone has different strategies for working on papers, and they’ll be able to give you some useful tips. Talking to someone who works with writing might be beneficial in ways that talking to your friends aren’t: if you can talk to one of our tutors about your writing style and methods, then they might be able to find a way to help you figure out how to pick and start working on a paper topic.
I hope some of these tips help you find whatever it is you want to write about this semester! And, as always, feel free to stop by the Writing Center with whatever you’ve got of your paper. Whether it’s just ideas floating up in your head or a full-on draft, we’ll help you work with it. Happy brainstorming!