Papers: How to choose a topic

All right, so you know you’re going to write a paper. The next step, most likely, is to choose a topic. Your professor (or teacher) might give you a list of topics, but ultimately you’re responsible for the direction your paper goes. Don’t mess it up.

Just kidding. When it comes down to it, the topic you choose probably doesn’t matter that much as you think. Here are a few guidelines I follow, though, along with some reasons why they might be helpful:

  • Choose a topic you’ve already covered in class. If you can, you want to write on a topic you already know something about. If you’re provided with a list of topics to choose from, choose one you’ll talk about in the beginning of class or one you’ve already talked about, not one you’ll talk about at the end of the semester. If you’re not given a list of topics to choose from, choose one from the lecture topics in the class syllabus. This way, the class material can do double duty, and you won’t have to.
  • Choose a topic you can talk about. If it’s too obscure or too confusing or too boring for you to say anything meaningful about it from the start, you might want to keep looking. Notice, though, that I didn’t say you need to like your topic. For myself anyway, assuming I don’t know much about the topics, trying to find something I like means researching a bunch of them. My suggestion instead is to go with the one you know the most about, use the extra time to research that exclusively, and get on with writing.
  • Choose a person over an idea. It’s easier to find info on a person. You can search for the name. It’s usually more difficult to find narrow information on an idea, method, or concept. Also, when it comes to citing sources, it’s much easier to directly quote an important person if that person is the subject of your paper. If you just go quoting someone who knows a bunch about whatever idea you’ve chosen, it doesn’t look as good.
  • Choose a topic quickly and don’t change your mind. I already kind of said this, but it’s worth repeating. Pick a topic based on these guidelines and move on. Don’t keep waffling, second guessing yourself. Get to writing.