Writing Tips - The Topic

Everyone likes to talk about things that are important to him or herself. Think of writing as just another form of talking. What makes writing so much more difficult, however, is that your audience isn't in front of you giving you feedback as to what they have or haven't understood, what's boring them or what they'd like to know more about.

I once read an article that estimated only eleven percent of what we communicate when we speak is done with words. The rest comes from the inflection of the voice, from facial and other bodily cues. The trick to writing, therefore, is to anticipate when you might lose your reader and how to put into words all the visual components of oral communications. Let's start by finding something interesting to talk about: the topic.

Your topic will be conditioned in part by the subject of the course and in part by what interests you. Your professors will help you refine this into a paper that's not only rewarding for you and meaningful to others, but also doable. That is, you'll be looking for a topic that:

  • Is not too general.
  • Is not so narrow that it will require research into overly specialized areas.
  • Can be covered in some detail.
  • Can be divided into subordinate ideas.
  • Will help you learn more about the subject of the course.

If you're working on your final thesis, you'll also want to make sure that you have an idea about the subject you're covering. That is, for class papers, it may be sufficient simply to investigate an issue or topic. For the final project, you need to add some personal assessment of your area. That's why we call it a project: because you're actually trying to argue something.

Such an idea is not going to spring fully grown from your head on the first day of class. Ideas will come to you as the class progresses, and most of them will have to be discarded. But be patient. You will find something that interests you, and your professor will help you turn it into a manageable paper topic.

The last tip. Papers often get into trouble because its author cannot summarize the topic in one or two concise sentences. To guarantee that you won't get lost or muddled while you're working, write out your topic several times each week, post it on your computer screen, engrave it on your kitchen table . . . never forget what you're doing and why your doing it. This is may sound all too obvious, but you'd be surprised how often authors, even professional academics, can't describe coherently what they're doing, or even summarize what they've done when they've finished whatever it is they were doing!

You can find an excellent online guide to defining a manageable topic at the writing center at Purdue University: Planning and Invention . It's designed for undergraduates, but it covers everything in one way or another.