4 Questions Students Should Ask When Choosing Essay Topics
Deciding on essay topics is daunting. I remember sitting in front of my computer staring at a blank page, just wondering where to start. Even a fairly specific prompt usually leaves plenty of room for personal choices. So what happens if you are waiting for inspiration to strike, and it never does? The essay will still be due, that’s what.
As a student, I have come to realize that some of my best essay topics had to be dragged out of the compost at the bottom of my brain, rather than springing fully formed into existence, like crocuses in springtime. As a teacher, I see it as my task to guide students toward essay topics that are interesting to them, that they can learn from, and that result in essays that they can feel proud of.
Here are four questions I suggest as a starting point for students who are wondering where to begin:
What am I passionate about?
God created each of us with interests and passions, and He did it on purpose. Genesis says that after He finished creating the world, “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God values our individuality, and so should we. When a student is thinking about essay topics, those unique passions and interests are a good place to start. Some of the best student essays I’ve received were written on topics I neither knew nor cared much about, like the benefits and distinctions between different dirt bikes. My lack of knowledge didn’t matter. In that particular case my student loved researching and writing about the topic, and the resulting essay was excellent.
What do I want to learn about?
Writing an essay is like a mandated opportunity to learn about a subject you are already interested in. Writer E. L. Doctorow says, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” When I was in high school I decided to write my junior year research paper about Jane Austen. I’d already read all of her books and thought it would be a breeze. As my essay developed, I started focusing on the increasing presence of the merchant and naval class in Austen’s books. I still read Jane Austen’s books, and the essay I wrote has enriched my understanding of the social shifts in her novels ever since.
Is my topics too broad?
Most young writers take what I call the “dartboard” approach to choosing an essay topic: the larger the topic, the more likely that it will catch any subtopic thrown at it. In other words, students choose very general essay topics out of fear, because they are not sure what to include in an essay in the first place. The truth is that more specific essay topics are actually easier to write about, because they clarify what does and does not belong on the page. Instead of flailing around in generalities, the writer can analyze specific details. A good topic will give the essay direction and focus.
Is my topic too narrow?
At the other extreme from essay topics that are too broad are essay topics that are so narrow that there is no research, or that everything on the topic can be said in 125 words. Choosing a suitable essay topic is very much like Goldilocks’ dilemma at the Three Bears’ house. It’s important not to choose an essay topic that is too big or too small, but one that is juuuuuust right. The scope of the topic should be tailored to suit the requirements of the assignment.
There are no real secrets to choosing essay topics. As a writer and a writing teacher I am constantly excited by the possibilities of an essay written on the right topic. Through these questions I hope I can share some of my excitement with you, and help you with the process of choosing that “right” topic.