Choosing an Essay Topic

Getting Started

Choosing an essay or research topic can be challenging. Knowing where to look for an idea can be helpful. Here are some ways to help you get started:

  • Handbooks and encyclopedias often give a good overview of a subject area and provide relevant background information, as well as key terms that can be used when searching the databases. Find handbooks, encyclopedias, and specialized dictionaries in the library's collection. Check the online Subject Guides for these tools.
  • Did you discuss an interesting topic in class that you would like to learn more about? Ask your instructor about turning it into an essay.
  • Consult the textbook for your class and look at the Table of Contents for possible topics.
  • Try reading online daily news sources for something that might spark your imagination.
  • Explore a topic that you know nothing about but wish you did. Browse Wikipedia for ideas.
  • Watch the video "Using Wikipedia Wisely"
Selecting an Appropriate Topic
  • Now you should evaluate the potential topic you have found. Are you interested in writing about this topic? Many scholars have found that the more interest they have in something, the easier it is to research and write about it.
  • Are you writing a 6 page paper or a 4th year honours paper? Choose a topic that can be reasonably addressed in the essay length that you are writing.
  • If your topic is too broad, you will not be able to address it in a thorough or interesting manner. If your topic is too narrow, you may not have enough to write about and may have difficulty finding research resources.
  • Finally, consider the goal of your essay. Are you supposed to write an essay that describes, compares and contrasts, analyzes, or argues an issue? This will affect the way in which you approach the topic.
Translating your topic into a Research Question

After gathering background information, one of the easiest ways to focus your topic is to frame it as a question.

  • Research is not passive reporting, but a search for answers.
  • Consider what you want your reader to find out.
  • What is your voice in the dialogue on your topic?

For example, after doing some reading on graffiti, you may discover that there are many controversies involving racism, local artists, and city regulations.  There are a number of ways to further focus your interest by asking questions, such as:

  • Who is involved?
  • What are the poltical affiliations of those who are in favour or and opposed?
  • Are there any economic impacts?
  • Are there any useful comparisons you can make?
  • What are the pros and cons or ethical arguments for and against?

A great resource to consult is Chapter 3, 'From Topics to Questions', in the book "The Craft of Research" Q180.55.M4B66. It can be consulted in print or online. Another method of organizating your topic is mind mapping which will help you visualize your topic by diagramming the keywords. Several online mind mapping tools are available for free on the internet and include XMind, Coogle and Freemind.

Do you still need help?

If you are having problems, talk to your instructor or TA. They are there to help you, so don't be afraid to ask questions. You can also contact the Research Help staff in the Library, in person or online.

Writing Services is located on the 4th floor of the library and offers students instruction on developing an argument, structuring ideas, writing well, etc. and is part of the Centre for Student Academic Support.

Content last updated: February 26, 2019