Tap, tap, tap, tap. The repetitive rapping of my pencil against the desk broke the deafening silence in Mrs. Brantley’s English class as my peers and I anxiously awaited the starting bell. If the rumors were true, today Mrs. Brantley would assign the dreaded fifth-grade-signature assignment, our first research paper. Although she prepared us well, tension permeated the room as we worried about undertaking such a strenuous task. Once class began, Mrs. Brantley detailed the requirements of our paper; when she stated the most “exciting” part of the assignment, I slumped down in my seat, already defeated. How would I ever decide on a topic interesting enough to merit writing a five-page paper! Perhaps some of my classmates appreciated the free reign our teacher gave students regarding the subject of the paper; however, her “generosity” only increased my anxiety.
Looking back to my middle school years, I realize that freedom of topic choice is a tremendous blessing. Most college students are chained to specific prompts and are often unable to complete assignments that coincide with their interests. If you are given the opportunity to choose your own topic, here are a few tips that will help you through those indecisive moments!
When you’re first looking for a topic, try browsing through the table of contents of different textbooks, encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, and even consider consulting the good old internet in order to find general ideas for potential research topics. This early research will help you to determine whether there are enough available materials to develop a paper.
When you decide on a general idea, you can begin brainstorming. Brainstorming consists of free writing, making lists, and drawing clusters of ideas to narrow down a specific topic.
The following are four steps the Writing Center suggests to help narrow down a topic:
- Ask questions to determine the nature of the assignment. These questions will help you create a specific question that addresses a specific aspect of the topic. Is this a research process essay that shows a step-by-step description? Is this a critical paper that arrives at some judgment or conclusion? Is this a narrative or descriptive paper of some aspects of the topic? Is this an argumentative paper that argues for or against a particular idea in the topic?
- Write down the topic and all the categories or major issues, then study areas that are part of the topic.
- Choose one major category and see if it has any more specific issues that can be addressed in a research paper.
- Create a question that will allow the writing of a process, description, argument, narration, or critical analysis of the topic using all the ideas from the sources discovered during the research process.
Overall, make sure to choose a topic that piques your interest. Trust me, humans are naturally compelled to learn more about things that interest them and therefore you will be much more likely to research something you are passionate about. Although professors rarely provide completely open prompts, most give students the freedom to research topics of interest within a specific subject. For example, if your professor assigned an essay about child development and you were particularly interested in linguistics, you could choose to write a paper about language development in children.
Though research papers seem to have developed a negative stigma, the right topic can transform the assignment into something interesting, valuable, and rewarding. Follow these tips and suggestions and you may be surprised by what you find.
Written by Leah (NEW: Click on author’s name to learn more about him or her!!)