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By Vlad Mackevic

Probably the most important element of any academic assignment is the title, particularly if you have to create one yourself.

When you have free reign over the topic for your university essay, research paper or dissertation, you can have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, you are excited, because you can do whatever you want. On the other, you’re thinking: “How do I figure out what to write about?”

Generally, there are three main rules for you to follow:

1. Choose a small, focused topic

Your assignment is not about 1000 things. It is about ONE. So, make your topic focused. Let’s take this example:

The rise of the Asian Tigers (economic power in the East)

When your reader sees this topic, if they are critical, they will inevitably ask: “What about the Asian Tigers?”

Which aspect of that phenomenon are you analysing? Reasons for their emergence? Consequences thereof? Anything else that I have no idea about?

How can we narrow it down? Let’s look at this one:

What were the reasons for the rise of South Korean high-tech industry in the 1950s?

Breaking it down, we can see much more focused and explanatory this question is:constructing essay questions.

  • a) the reasons, and NOT the consequences
  • b) South Korea and NOT China
  • c) high-tech and NOT fishing or coal and steel, and
  • d) the 1950s and NOT any other time.


This question is clearly more narrowed and focused.

Another example: if you are writing an essay in literature, and exploring ideas of love in the works of Ernest Hemingway, then you focus on love and not courage. You focus on Hemingway and not Jane Austen or Edgar Poe.

This is narrow. This is focused. This is specific.

Why is this good?

A well structured question is beneficial to two user groups; you and your reader. For you, it reduces the amount of work. When you’ve specified in your topic what you’re looking for, you have to look only for that and for nothing else.

For your reader, the content of your assignment (or dissertation) has now been given a context and signposted in brief.

2. Pick the subject you love

This is simple and straightforward: if you love something, you will be enthusiastic about it. If you love your subject, you will happily research and write about it.

Your grades will be better, too – because the more you learn about something, the better your analytical skills become.

3. Write about something you know

If you love your subject, you will be keen to learn about it. However, if you are not very enthusiastic about this essay and you just have to do it – then write about something you know.

Learning from scratch is hard. Trust me, I know. Unless you LOVE the subject (see point 2).

So, if you have rudimentary knowledge of any area, write about it. It will make things much easier.

Have you ever had an essay with a free topic? Or maybe you’re writing your dissertation now and your lecturer is telling you to narrow your scope? Tell us how you feel about it – leave a comment below.

This blog post is part of the new series: #StudySundays. Every Sunday, an article related to essay writing, revision skills and exam techniques will appear on The Lecture Room website.

P.S. This article is based on Vlad Mackevic’s book From Confusion to Conclusion: How to Write a First-Class Essay. You can download sample chapters of the book for FREE by clicking here or by entering your email address below.

The book can also be purchased on in paperback and Kindle eBook formats. If you do not own a Kindle reader, Amazon provides a range of FREE applications for your computer, Smartphone or Tablet.

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