Writing Process: Choosing Your Topic and Brainstorming
STEP 2: CHOOSING YOUR TOPIC
The second step in writing a good essay is choosing the right topic. Your topic determines what you will write, so choose wisely.
This is the second entry in a series concerning the writing process. Make sure that you read Part 1: Reading the Prompt before reviewing this article.
Choosing the right topic for your essay can be tricky. Usually, there is flexibility built into a prompt, so that you have a choice of which part of the question to focus on.
Here are a few guidelines:
MAKE SURE YOUR TOPIC ANSWERS THE QUESTION POSED BY THE PROMPT.
This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away by an idea and accidentally go off topic.
DON’T DECIDE YOU DON’T LIKE THE QUESTION AND JUST CHOOSE ANOTHER TOPIC.
As a teacher, I can tell you that prompts are written carefully and with a purpose. If you prefer to write about something else, talk to your teacher. This is not one of those situations where it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.
CHOOSE A TOPIC THAT INTERESTS YOU AND THAT YOU WANT TO LEARN ABOUT.
You will be spending some time with this topic, after all. If you don’t think you will find an interesting topic within the parameters of the prompt, do a little bit of research. You might be surprised to find how interesting you find some of the specific parts of a larger topic.
CHOOSE A TOPIC THAT FITS THE LENGTH OF ESSAY YOU ARE WRITING.
It can be a strong temptation to choose a broad topic (also known as an umbrella topic), because then you know you will be able to find information about the topic. This is a trap! It is much more effective to limit your topic. The simplest way I can explain this is to say that you won’t be able to write a good paper on a topic big enough for a book or a series of books. At the same time, you don’t want to choose a topic so narrow you run out of things to say after half a page.
Here’s an example: I’ve been given a prompt to write a four-page essay about the Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet.” Now, I can’t effectively write about everything in the play in four pages. I can’t possibly cover all the details about the characters, the movies based one the play, the themes, or the historical setting. Instead I have to choose a sub-topic to write about. At the same time, I won’t be able to talk about Claire Danes’ dress in the costume ball of the film adaptation for more than 300 words or so. (Maybe you can; I can’t.) A good medium-sized topic would be “Does or doesn’t William Shakespeare support the idea of star-crossed-lovers in his play ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”
As you continue on in the process, you may need to tweak your topic. It’s a natural part of the process.
STEP 3: BRAINSTORMING
This is a step that many students skip, maybe because it feels like one more thing. But why? You are literally generating the ideas that you will use in your paper. I personally like to do this process by hand, preferably on a giant whiteboard, but if you don’t have one, paper will do.
The process is simple: Just start writing out everything and anything that you can think of in connection with your topic. Not sure if it really fits? Put it on the list. What if you don’t want to use it later? Put it on the list. Maybe something you’ve just written reminds you of something else? Put it on the list!
If you are writing a research paper or using another text, your brainstorming list will most likely be made up of facts and ideas from the texts you’ve read. In fact, writing all the ideas out in a list will significantly help your organization.
Read the third installment in this series: Part 4: Thesis Statement