Determining an Appropriate Research Topic

How To Determine an Appropriate Research Topic

This blog entry is all about understanding subjects and research topics, and how to determine or choose a path when going through the process of writing an essay. Often, choosing a topic with which to begin an essay is one of the hardest parts of the whole thing, so this discussion will go over some decent ways to go about doing that.

Understanding your subject

Before considering your assignment, it is best to make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of the subject itself. Often, people writing essays are working within the confines of a course with specific parameters surrounding their assignments. In this context, it’s absolutely essential that you review your course material first and foremost. Understanding the broad or specific subject of the course, its methodology and the way an instructor is teaching it are all keys to identifying the best path to take when writing an essay. To ground yourself this way, skim your course materials and review notes or even outside scholarship on the broader subject. This will put you in the necessary mindset for the tasks ahead.

Reviewing your assignment

After developing a firmer understanding and getting in the mindset of the overall subject at hand, it is perhaps most essential that you thoroughly review the assignment itself. I can’t emphasize enough how many essays I have seen that – by all objective measures – are simply amazingly written but nevertheless have failed to confront the actual assignment. No matter how perfectly written an essay is in the context of a course, if you don’t make it conform to the assignment at hand it will be like you never wrote it in the first place. Fortunately, once we know how important this step happens to be, we can go about ensuring we execute it correctly. Let me provide an example of an assignment with which to begin:

Review the underlying causes of the American Civil War and provide an argument as to whether the conflict resulted primarily from ideological, social, or economic conflict within the United States of America.

The important thing to do here when deciding how to approach this assignment is to first read it literally – word for word, what is it asking us to do? Put simply, this assignment wants us to review the American Civil War as a historical event and form an argument about its primary cause. The wording of the assignment leaves a lot of room for interpretation, in that you are free to approach the topic from within the confines of three angles: social, economic, and ideological. In this case, the assignment is also telling you that doing some summarizing of the topic is perfectly acceptable. However, any decent historian of the American Civil War will tell you that it’s not so cut and dry, and that the event’s causes were multifaceted. While this is perfectly true, the assignment is specifically asking us to choose one and narrow it down. This doesn’t mean your argument can’t include the others or a nod to the fact that all three were involved, but rather that you need to pick one of the three angles and form your essay around it. More importantly, you need to make that choice clearly.

Taking a position

Choosing the topic itself can be intimidating, and there are several approaches to doing so. Typically, an instructor who is good at their job will balance out the choices so there is no one that will be easier than the next. Given how likely it is that none of the choices will truly be easier to write on (and so, picking strategically is an exercise in futility), what’s more important is that you pick your topic according to your own interests. As someone who has written hundreds of essays, I can tell you that a combination of interest, enthusiasm, and personal knowledge should underlay your choice of topic if you want the assignment to go smoothly. Alternatively, I have used the need to write an essay as an excuse to learn more about a topic. After all, depending on the assignment you could be spending a few days or even a week or more working on it.

With this in mind, consider what topic or element interests you most. To take our original example – whether the American Civil War’s causes lay primarily in social, ideological, or economic elements – what you might like to do is consider whether you’re more interested in 19th century American economy, social movements, or ideological elements. For example, if you have a deep interest in the early American economy and the economic differences driving a wedge between North and South, then it is likely your essay will turn out better. On the other hand, perhaps you already know plenty about ideology surrounding antebellum slavery and you are interested in how economic issues were extremely prevalent in leading up to the conflict. Either way, being passionate, interested, and engaged with the topic is perhaps your most important tool in turning out a good essay – that is, other than good source material, technical writing, and structuring (but we’ll get to that later).

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