PROBABLY THE MOST important element of any academic assignment is the title. Particularly if you have to create one yourself. When you have a free choice of 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 write about whatever you want. On the other – you can be overwhelmed: ‘How do I figure out what to write about?’
Now, generally there are three main rules which you have to follow:
1. Choose a narrow, focused topic
2. Pick a subject you love
3. Write about what you know
Let’s look at them, one by one.
3.1. Choose a Narrow, Focused Topic
Your assignment should not be about a thousand things. It should be about one. So, make sure your topic is focused.
Let’s take this example: imagine I am a lecturer and a student brings me this topic for an essay or even a dissertation:
The rise of the Asian Tigers (economic power in the East)
Now, I immediately have several problems with this kind of topic. First of all, it is very vague. When the readers of that essay see this topic, they may ask: ‘What on earth are the Asian Tigers?’
Even if they know that your essay is about the four powerful economic regions of Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), they may ask the following questions: ‘What about them? Which aspect of that phenomenon are you analysing? What were the reasons for their emergence? What were the consequences? Or perhaps you want to carry out an analysis of their economic performance in the past decade?’
You cannot write everything you know about South East Asian economics. It is not possible due to the time constraints – and there is no need to do it anyway. You have to narrow your topic down as much as possible.
So, how can you narrow this one down? Let’s look at this example:
What were the reasons for the rise of the South Korean high-tech industry in the 1950s?
Here, we are talking about reasons and not consequences; South Korea and not Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore; high-tech and not fishing or coal and steel, and the 1950s and not any other time. Can you see? It’s narrow. It’s focused.
Let’s take another example. Imagine you are writing a literature essay and exploring ideas of love in the works of Ernest Hemingway. Naturally, you will focus on love and not courage. On Hemingway and not Edgar Allan Poe or George Orwell.
This is narrow. This is focused. This is specific.
Why is this good?
Because it helps two people: you and your reader. For you, it reduces the amount of work. When you have specified in your topic what you are looking for, you only have to find that and nothing else! And your readers have a clear idea what they are going to read about.
In short, create a simple, focused question – and then answer it.
3.2. Pick a Subject You LoveThis 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.
Writing about a subject simply because it is fashionable or in the news will not make you motivated. It might even make you hate writing your assignment and produce sloppy work. Writing about what you love, on the other hand, will give you ideas and make you want to find out more.
There are no bad essay topics. Especially when you have the freedom to create your own. As long as your essay answers your question, you will get marks.
3.3. Write About Something You Know
If you love your topic, you will be keen to learn about it. However, if you are not very enthusiastic about an essay and simply have a duty to do it – then write about something you know.
Learning from scratch is hard. Trust me, I know. Unless you love the subject.
So, if you have at least some rudimentary knowledge of an area, write about it. You can even use your previous notes or some old references, which will make things much easier.
Did you like these tips? Do you have any tips of your own that you would like to share with us? Feel free to do it in the comments.
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.
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