How to Choose a Great Essay Topic (or how NOT to write another “Legalize Marijuana! paper)

Imagine this: your instructor has just sat down on a Friday night with a stack full of argument papers to grade. The first several off the top of the stack are the standard, high school topics we’ve all read a hundred times: “Stop Childhood Obesity!” “Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving!” “Approve Stem Cell Research!” and the all-time favorite, “Ya-da, ya-da – Legalize Marijuana!– ya-da, ya-da.”

Then the instructor comes upon an essay explaining the benefits of painting classrooms in cool colors – blues, greens, lavenders –  which research has shown improves concentration, lowers stress levels, and improves attention. The instructor becomes so engrossed in the topic she can’t put the paper down. He/she is not only thoroughly entranced by the essay, but he/she is learning something from the essay as well. The instructor collapses with sheer joy over your essay, shouts “HALLELUJAH!”  and dances a jig in her living room.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but I’ll guarantee he/she will be thrilled to read an essay with such a unique topic.

Where to Find Topics

So you’ve decided to write outside the box and begin your quest for the perfect topic, but you don’t know where to begin. First, think about what interests you. Don’t write about something you don’t care about. One place to begin is your field of study. What are you majoring in? Are there any problems that need a solution, or any reforms that you think might help the industry? Maybe you wish your field of study offered an internship program. Maybe this leads you to argue that all fields of study should offer internships, for credit, as part of any degree program. Interesting.

Another avenue to research is your college; what issues are being debated at your college that might resonate with readers. What issues are not being debated that you think should be? Maybe you think the whole A-F grading system is an arbitrary way to assess your learning, and a more accurate assessment might be simply a pass/no pass system. Some universities have abolished the A-F system, which they believe only forces students to focus on their GPA, instead of learning for the sake of knowledge. Very interesting.

If you’re coming up empty and all else fails, search out the library databases at your college. One favorite is Opposing Viewpoints. This online database is a treasure trove of ideas. Articles are separated under the headings of “Business and Economics”; “Energy and Environmentalism”; “Health and Medicine”; and “Society and Culture,”  just to name a few. In these links you’ll find dozens of debatable topics that would make a unique and interesting argument essay.

Test Your Topic

Once you think you’ve hit upon a unique topic that you are interested in, think about how it might work for your assignment. Some things to consider include:

  • Will it fit in the parameters of the assignment?
  • Will I be able to find reliable sources (if required) to support my  argument?
  • Is the topic too broad for a short essay?
  • Is the topic too narrow for a longer essay?
  • Is it a timely topic, or have I read or heard about this topic for years?

You might even consider asking your instructor if the topic might make a good essay for your class paper. Many instructors require topic approval before you begin.

Once you’ve hit upon a unique and interesting essay topic, you’ll find that you’ll not only be more enthusiastic about writing the paper, but the audience response will be more enthusiastic as well, and the paper will almost write itself.

Almost.

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