Guidelines for Choosing a Topic

Often you're assigned a topic to write about or asked to choose among several topics. When you can choose your own topic, keep the following points in mind:
  • Choose a topic that's appropriate to the length of your paper. Students often pick topics that are too broad to be adequately covered. Narrow topics lead to close observation, while broad topics lead to overgeneralization. If you're writing a five‐page paper, don't write on the history of women's rights; instead, write about one incident in the history of women's rights. Even a personal or descriptive essay will be better if you choose a narrow topic—your childhood in a small town, for example, rather than your childhood, or your uncle's barn rather than the Midwest. 

  • Avoid a topic that will tempt you to summarize rather than to discuss or analyze. Don't choose the plot of Macbeth but how the final scene of Macbeth illustrates the play's theme. The second topic is narrower and less likely to lead to summary. When considering a topic, ask yourself if it can lead to a reasonable thesis. 

  • Choose a topic that interests you. If you don't care about limiting cigarette advertising, don't select it as a topic for a persuasive essay. You'll have more to say, and you'll write better, on something you care about. Generally, if you choose a topic that is interesting to you, then your reader will find it interesting too. 

  • If your assignment requires research, choose a topic on which you can find material. Even when you aren't writing a research paper, make sure you select a subject that you can develop with sufficient details. 

  • After you've picked a topic, don't be afraid to change it if it isn't working out. Instructors would rather you write a good essay than that you grind out pages on something that was a poor choice. 

Topic vs. thesis

Don't confuse a topic with a main idea or thesis. The topic provides the subject; the thesis makes an assertion about that subject. Here are a few examples of topics that might be assigned to a college student: 

  1. Compare and contrast X's poem “To a Wolf” with Y's poem “The Happy Meercat.” Consider both theme and technique. 

  2. Discuss the following statement: “No matter how much we may deplore human rights violations in China, the United States should not impose sanctions on the Chinese government.” Do you agree or disagree? Support your opinion. 

  3. Analyze Shakespeare's use of clothing imagery in King Lear. 

  4. Describe an incident in your life that caused you to change an opinion or attitude. 

  5. “The Civil War had much more to do with economics than with morality.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Support your opinion. 

Topics 2 and 5 ask the writer to argue a position. A sentence expressing that position is a thesis statement. A thesis statement for the second topic might be: Imposing sanctions on China would be a mistake because it would hurt the American economy, because sanctions are notoriously unsuccessful as a way to force change, and because the United States should not interfere in the internal policies of other countries. 

While the other topics don't ask the writer to take a position, the writer should still formulate a thesis. A thesis statement for the first bullet might be: Although both poet X and poet Y show appreciation for their subjects, poet X's “To a Wolf” symbolizes the separation between humans and other animals, while poet Y's “The Happy Meercat” symbolizes the connection between all living things. With this thesis statement, the writer makes a point about the topic and sets up a direction for developing the content of the essay. 

Writing a thesis statement

When you write a paper that will, for example, analyze a literary work, compare theories, identify causes or effects, or argue a position, you should be able to write a thesis statement. You can refine and improve it as you go along, but try to begin with a one‐sentence statement. A thesis statement can help you steer a straight course and avoid digression. 

Don't be satisfied with weak generalities that fail to zero in on your main point. The following are examples of pseudo‐thesis statements: 

  • Poets X and Y make important points about animals in their poems “To a Wolf” and “The Happy Meercat.” 

  • People hold different opinions as to whether it is wise to impose sanctions on China because of their human rights violations. 

  • Shakespeare uses quite a bit of clothing imagery in King Lear

None of these statements provides a clear direction for an essay because the assertions they make are too vague. A better thesis statement for the third example might be: Clothing images in King Lear reflect the development of Lear from a man blinded by appearances to a man able to face the naked truth. Remember that creating a thesis statement is important to the way you approach your topic and will help you direct your thinking and writing.