The Freedom to Choose

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:

  1. 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?
  2. Write down the topic and all the categories or major issues, then study areas that are part of the topic.
  3. Choose one major category and see if it has any more specific issues that can be addressed in a research paper.
  4. 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!!)

Image Credit



Topic vs. Thesis: A Tale of Two Cokes

If you’re Texas born and raised, you’ve probably noticed that people who live in Not Texas tend to say some funky stuff. My favorite is the use of the word “soda,” or even coke_smallbetter, the laughable “pop.” In Texas, we like to keep things interesting and use “coke” to refer to literally any carbonated soft drink on the market. It’s a simple concept, but for my proud Yankee readers*, here’s an explanation:

Texan 1: We’re going to Sonic, y’all want a coke?

Texan 2: Sure, get me a Dr. Pepper.

Texan 3: Yeah, I want a cherry Coke.

Texan 4: I’ll take a Sprite.

Texan 1: Speeds off in a Chevy Silverado Texas Edition with Jason Aldean** blasting through the speakers

Cut scene

See? Simple. In Texanese, “coke” is just a generalized category that umbrellas dozens of beverages. Just as “Mexican food” and “rom-com” and “soda” are unspecified generic topics, so is the word “coke” in Texas.

Understanding the difference between a topic and a thesis can be just as easy if you realize the coke is like your topic, and your thesis is all the other individual drinks it represents. The topic of a paper is usually pretty darned generic, and it is often what is given to you by your professor. It’s the thing on the syllabus that makes you think, “That’s way too broad of an assignment. I still don’t know what to write about!” Here are some examples:

  1. An argument paper about making college free for everyone.
  2. A research paper on the leadership of the Founding Fathers
  3. A compare and contrast essay of the ancient Hebrews and pagan religions.

These are topics, the coke of the writing world. Theses, on the other hand, are born from within topics, but they are much more specific because they include a stance on the topic, as well as basic support for the stance. Some examples might be:

  1. Although the idea of tuition-free college sounds appealing to many, universal post-secondary education is dangerous to the quality of university education, the health of the economy, and the careers of future graduates.
  2. Thomas Paine and George Washington had vastly different roles in the American Revolution, but their similar transformational leadership styles encouraged and equipped Americans to achieve victory in independence.
  3. The ancient Hebrews and pagans shared similar proverbs and cultural tales, but the two groups differ greatly on their theology of God and humanity and practices for worship.

Now you’ve transitioned from generic coke to Dr. Pepper, Orange Fanta, Diet Sprite, and whatever else the kids are drinking these days. The original topics pointed in a general direction, but the theses that evolved from them are highly specific.

As you prepare for the semester ahead and struggle to get back in the academic swing of things, remember that the difference between a topic and a thesis is as simple as knowing that, in Texas, when somebody asks if you want a coke, you better tell them what kind of coke you want. Otherwise, they’ll probably bring you a Dr. Pepper because this ain’t New England, y’all.

* No Yankees were offended in the making of this blog. My dad and my fiancé are both from Not Texas, and I love ‘em both.

** I’m not as blatantly Texan as I appear. I had to Google “famous country singer” because I had no idea.

Written by Savanna

Image Credit

The Art of Narrowing Your Topic

Animals! I’d love to write about cats; I know so much about them! But wait, I just read that article about roller coaster safety. So many people have gotten hurt because parks are not following the rules; I need to spread the word! Oh, no, wait, I really wanted to write about cooking; there is nothing I like more. But I also really wanted to research Celiac Disease because it seems so interesting. But… but…. Even if I choose one of those, is that topic going scattered brainto be too broad? WHAT AM I GOING TO DO???  

In college, many professors give students the freedom to write about whatever we wish. For some of us, this newfound freedom may be a bit overwhelming. I have experienced this stress with a number of papers during my first two years in college, but I have finally found a way to calm my turbulent thoughts and rationally determine which topic would best suit each assignment. My dear apprentice, I am here to enlighten you on the way that great writers in our past have conquered this seemingly impossible quest.

First, take a deep breath and relax. Not only will this help you think more clearly, it will also help you to allow space in your brain to do more than stress about this overwhelming project.

The next step is technically part of the brainstorming process discussed in a previous blog, titled “Stormy with a Chance of Ideas.” Brainstorming is vital to get all your thoughts in one place before settling on a topic.

After brainstorming, it is time to narrow down that topic you have spent time brainstorming about! “But, Master,” you say. “Didn’t we already establish that I just can’t narrow it down? I want to write about everything!!” Ah, my apprentice, I have yet to reveal to you the secret of selecting the perfect topic, one that will awe your professor beyond words.

Take out your assignment sheet. That’s right, that lovely piece of paper that tells you everything your professor wants in this essay. Does he or she want a 10-page research paper? A one-paragraph essay? A 5-page analysis of a short story? This is because, of course, the length and style of an assignment is vitally important to our topic-selection process. Say we were leaning toward writing about cats, but our professor wants a 10-page research paper. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know if we could write a 10-page paper about them, no matter how fluffy and sweet they are. However, we could most likely write that much about Celiac Disease. This is the first filter through which we should sift our paper topic ideas. Now, this advice comes with the assumption that our professor has no guidelines or constraints for our topic. If s/he does (which is often the case), we should be sure to consider them during the brainstorming stage.

A second filter that helps to narrow the topics is our interests. Do we care about Celiac Disease or want to know more about it? It will be easier for us to write if we care about our subject.

Prior knowledge is also very important in selecting a topic. It would take far too much time to research a subject that we know nothing about. Occasionally this is necessary due to the professor’s instructions, but it will make the process much easier if we can write about something we understand.

However, as we begin to research, we see there may actually be too much information, even for a 10 page paper! There is information about the cause of the disease, the diagnosis of the disease, preventing the disease, treating the disease… an on and on. Guess what? Our topic is too broad. Time to narrow it down!

My pupil, as we consider what aspect of this topic to approach, consider two things: what is most interesting to us and which subtopic has the right amount of information for the length of our paper. If there are only two sources discussing the prevention of the disease, perhaps the treatment or cause of the disease would be better directions from which to tackle this topic. For this instance, let us select causes of Celiac Disease.

Congratulations, my apprentice! Now you have mastered the art of selecting and narrowing the topic. Others will guide you in your next quest: differentiating a topic from a thesis. You have learned well; now go and write well!

Written by Michelle

For more information on narrowing your topic and other writing subjects, check out our Selecting and Narrowing a Topic for Research handout and the Quick Reference Flyers page of our website!

Image Credit