How often do you receive an assignment, read over the prompt, and find yourself blank. You think you understand the question, but you’re coming up short on what would make a good topic.
The next time you’re stumped, consider the following 5 elements that help make an engaging paper:
I know, duh, but seriously – if you read the prompt a few more times, does it become more manageable? By pausing for a moment to digest what your instructor is asking of you, some ideas can either be entertained or eliminated right out of the gate.
When I was a student, I sometimes scheduled myself for “mulling over” a paper topic. All I asked of myself was to think through the assignment, jot down some ideas, sketch out the more promising ones, and do a little research to see which ideas were more viable than others.
If, at some point, I realized I didn’t have a firm grasp on the question itself, I contacted the instructor for further clarification and reached out to classmates.
Picking a strong topic starts with understanding the nature of the assignment.
2. Make it relevant
It should go without saying that the topic you select needs to have some relevance to the course’s overall themes. But you also might consider how your topic idea ties into:
- Your professor’s research interests and work
- Your own broader academic interests
- Current events
By factoring in any or all of these, you stand to choose a topic that feels, well, topical, both for yourself and the person grading you. Find ways to help Future You by researching topics that will serve your academic or professional interests, and can serve as a building block for a larger project you are working on.
3. Don’t be afraid to get weird
If a topic seems too obvious, clichéd, or hackneyed, that’s because it probably is. So don’t do yet another paper on it. I used to make it a goal of mine to pick topics that would an instructor to say, “I’ve never had a student write about that!” I reasoned even if the paper didn’t turn out to be The Best Paper Ever, at least I gave them something new to read.
For example, my dissertation topic was “The Role of Naval Technological Expertise in Russian Expansion, 1803-1966.” Although plenty of histories are available about European maritime power, Russia is often left out of the story (and not typically considered any kind of tour-de-force in European exploration history). Additionally, the Russian empire was always seen as technologically inferior or even “backwards” when compared to its Western counterparts; I wanted to work from a place assuming that perception was an erroneous one. Finally, I wanted to test a unique methodology of incorporating Science and Technology Studies (STS) into more traditional History theories and methods.
Don’t worry if nothing above means anything to you. The point is, for the professors I was working with the topic was just weird enough to get a green light, especially from funders when it was time to apply for grants and fellowships.
4. Play off your professor’s interests
You can take this two ways. One option is to choose a topic that you know dovetails nicely with your instructor’s proclaimed interests. If she is a premier scholar of 20th century French cinema, find a way to work that in there. The pro is that she is more likely to be interested in what you write about. The potential con, however, is that she is an expert on the subject and might find plenty to critique in your work.
The second option is to deliberately choose something your instructor is unfamiliar with. You can still strive to pique their interest, without worrying about the fact they probably already know everything you have to say about it (and might disagree with you).
But don’t let your professor’s possible disagreement dissuade you too much. In my experience, it’s more important you build and defend your argument well, than to affirm everything your professor thinks about a topic.
5. Take a stance
This is perhaps the most important point for any topic you are considering writing about. If you are thinking over an idea, ask yourself if you have a stance on it? If not, will delving into it further allow you to take a position? If the answer is no – it’s too confusing, you don’t care, or you’re completely on the fence – keep looking. A strong paper is largely defined by your ability to make a coherent and compelling argument.
And if nothing else, picture yourself as the grader. Is this paper going to be an engaging read? Give the professor something that will get them to pay attention. It may not be a perfect paper, but an interesting topic will always win points.