Students often ask how to come up with a paper topic. It’s a really good question, especially when we don’t have a lot of experience coming up with our own topics — when we are used to someone telling us what to write about — it can be daunting. We want to write something profound, insightful, and “right.” We don’t want to look stupid.
So, where do we begin?
First, we throw out the idea that we are being judged. This is good advice for life, too.
When I was young, my mom used to tell me the world didn’t revolve around me. (I found myself saying that to my children when I had them.) It sounds like you’re being told not to be selfish, but, in fact, what you’re being told is that while you are the protagonist of your own narrative, so everyone else is the protagonist of his or her own. People aren’t paying as much attention to you as you think they are. Believe it or not, when a professor is reading your paper, they are thinking about ways to help you, to make your writing or your argument stronger, not about how smart or stupid you are.
Let that knowledge free you.
Forget about being profound and insightful for a minute, too.
If you are an athlete or an artist of any sort, you know that you can’t perform if you are overthinking your performance. To do well, you need to let go of your consciousness of yourself. You need to be in the groove, in the flow.
It’s the same thing with writing.
If you spend your energy trying to sound smart or trying to figure out how to get an A on this paper, you will not do a good job and you certainly will not have a good time.
A good time? Yes. A good time.
Imagine you are sitting with your friends having a conversation about something you are all interested in. This should be your model for writing a paper and it is where you want to begin to find your paper topic.
What interests you?
If you are being asked to write about a piece of literature and you get to choose the text you write about, do not try to figure out 1) what text your professor likes best; 2) what would be easiest; 3) what would be most impressive; 4) what your friend is writing about; 5) what has the best secondary sources.
Start with what interests you. What text did you like? Or hate? What got your attention, your interest? What moved you? Pick a text you find most interesting. If you’re really gushing about all of the texts you’ve read for a class, just close your eyes and point. Do not spend a lot of time stressing about the perfect text to write about. There’s no such thing. Just pick one you find interesting.
You don’t need to know your thesis at this point.
Your next step is to ask yourself what you liked or didn’t like about it. In other words, why did you pick this text? (If you tried to cheat by skipping the previous step or by choosing a text based on 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 above, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot. Go back and do it right.)
Write down your thoughts about what you liked or didn’t like. Open the book, the play, the poem, the screenplay, the graphic novel… Pick out examples of the things you liked or didn’t like. Write them down.
Once you’ve written down everything you liked or didn’t like or found curious, step back and look at what you’ve written. Is there a theme? A focus? Get creative. Can you find connections between some of the things you’ve listed? If you can, you’ve got your topic. It might not be a thesis yet. It might not be fully formed. But it’s starting to take shape.
If it isn’t obvious to you at this point what you should be writing about, show your list to someone else, preferably someone who is familiar with the text.
Your professor would be a good choice. Find out his or her office hours and show up. Bring the notes your just wrote. (By the way, your professor will be very impressed by your smarts if you do this. He or she will have plenty of good things to say about you, your initiative, your thoughtfulness, your enthusiasm, your organization skills and all those things your future employers will want to hear about. In other words, your professor will be able to write you much better letters of recommendation if you show up to his or her office hours and talk about your thought process and ask questions.)
Often talking about your ideas with someone else will help you figure out what you want to say about your topic.
M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” He was right. Putting it on paper, bouncing it off another person, these are techniques for knowing what you think. Once you’ve got that, you’re well on your way to writing a brilliant, insightful paper.