How to Choose Essay Topics: Starting From Scratch

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Developing essay topics is your first hurdle in writing an essay or paper after you make sure you understand the assignment. Just grabbing a random topic from thin air without much thought is the worst thing you can do. Instead, prior to even deciding on essay topics, think about both the purpose of the paper and your audience. These two things influence your selection of topics by helping you choose and narrow your choices.

Keep your choice of essay topics focused on something you find interesting. Think back to class lectures, reading materials and assignments, and identify a subject or idea that drew your interest. If this fails to help you choose a topic, there are a few methods that can help you. Combining these methods with a few tips should have you selecting good essay topics in no time.

Brainstorming to develop essay topics

While brainstorming is usually thought of as something for group assignments, you can take advantage of this process to develop essay topics. As you prepare to brainstorm, set aside a certain amount of time; 5-10 minutes is a good starting point. The goal is to write down your rough thoughts quickly. You can use words, phrases or complete sentences, but your focus is on the ideas you put down, not on the grammatical correctness or flow of your words.

Write down anything that is connected, even remotely, to the scope of your assignment that pops into your head. If you already have a vague idea of the topic but need to get more specific, focus on that subject to work on flushing out potential essay topics. The important thing is to not criticize yourself or your ideas. Just get them down on paper. When your brainstorming session is over, you can work on narrowing and defining a topic that works.

Freewriting to develop essay topics

Freewriting to flush out essay topics is similar to brainstorming; however, there is a key difference. Your ideas are written down as paragraphs. For this process, you also want to set aside about 5-10 minutes. The idea is to put your thoughts to paper without a break in your thoughts; you write nonstop without worry over grammar, punctuation, spelling, mechanics or word choice. You do not want to even think about how the ideas you are coming up with fit together, or even if they do. If you draw a blank, write something along the lines of “I don’t have anything to put down at the moment.” Do not stop writing for the time you allotted to generate essay topics.

When your allotted time is up, review what you have written. Eliminate anything that does not make sense or seems like a weak topic. Focus in on those things that are viable essay topics, and make a list from which you can select, narrow and define your topic.

Clustering to develop essay topics

Clustering is another process you can use to develop essay topics. Essentially, clustering creates a visual map on paper of your thoughts and idea. This process allows you to see the relationships between potential topics, ideas and how they sprawl into different paths and connect.

This spatial representation of essay topics allows you to explore topics you might already have in mind, too. Taking essay topics you think are viable, you can map out the details of the topic to decide if it is something you can write into a full paper or essay. It also helps show you how scattered or connected ideas within a topic are or how some topics are similar.

Tips for selecting essay topics

Whatever method you use to generate essay topics, there are a few tips that can help you narrow down your choices to select an appropriate, interesting topic.

Tip #1: Choose a topic about which you are passionate.

Avoid picking essay topics that make you feel indifference. When you do not care about the topic, it comes through in your writing. Passion makes your writing stronger, and makes it easier to write. Plus, when you are enthusiastic about your topic, it inspires you to write.

Tip #2: Choose a topic with which you are familiar.

While you are likely to have to do some research, especially if the assignment is a research paper, choosing essay topics you at least know a little makes your writing more believable and builds confidence in your words with your readers. If you choose a topic you do not know much about but are passionate about, get well acquainted with the general topic before you narrow down and focus essay topics.

Tip #3: Get specific when narrowing down and defining essay topics.

Once you have decided on a general topic, focus in on one aspect of it. In order to keep your writing focused, finite and coherent, you must decide on one area in whatever makes you passionate. For example, if you love horror films, writing about everything you know is too broad; it would create an essay that is scattered, unorganized and stuffed too full of information. Instead, focus on horror flicks from a certain time period or a certain series of films. The more specific your essay topics, the more focus and logic your writing shows.

Tip #4: Avoid worn-out essay topics.

Many essay topics have been written about thousands of times. Your instructor has likely read many, many essays on worn-out topics, such as abortion, the death penalty, legalizing marijuana and many other topics. Steer clear of these essay topics—very clear. In most cases, there is not an angle you can take that has not already been written about, which is likely to bore your readers and hurt your grade. Instead, get creative. Spend the extra time to find essay topics that are fresh. Invent your narrowed down topic from something that interests you.

Ultimately, essay topics make or break the strength of your paper, so making the right choice directly influences the quality of what you write.