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Writing

Choosing and Developing an Essay Topic 

Your topic is what you’re writing about. Topics can be questions or problems (and theses can be answers or solutions). When choosing a topic, consider your interests: What do you want to learn about? What do you have questions about? What issue do you care about? What sounds manageable to research? 

Essay topics almost always start out too broad, making it hard to find relevant sources or develop an effective thesis.  You need to focus your topic. You can do this by asking questions: 

  • Can you look at the causes of the topic? 

  • Example: What was the main cause of the French Revolution? 

  • Can you look at the effects of the topic? 

  • Example: What was the impact of Harry Potter on adult fiction? 

  • Are there different definitions of the topic? Have these differences led to conflict? 

  • Example: How do Asian and Western cultures interpret feminism differently? 

  • Has the definition of a topic changed over time? Why is that change significant? 

  • Example: How was childhood viewed in the Victorian era compared to today? 

  • Can you limit the focus of your topic to a specific time period? 

  • Example: What was the impact of Motown music in the 1960s? 

  • Can you limit the focus of your topic to a specific place? 

  • Example: What is the significance of baseball in Japan? 

Another helpful question is “What about it?” You can ask this question multiple times until you arrive at a topic that’s specific and well-defined. 

  • Topic: climate change (too broad) 

  • What about climate change? Effects of climate change (still too broad) 

  • What about effects of climate change? Rising sea levels due to climate change (getting there!) 

  • What about rising sea levels due to climate change? Consequences of rising sea levels due to climate change (close!) 

  • What about the consequences of rising sea levels due to climate change? The plight of “climate refugees” forced to leave coastal areas within the past decade because of rising sea levels due to climate change (specific!) 

The final version of this example considers the effect (the creation of climate refugees) of a specific occurrence (rising sea levels) and grounds it in a specific place (coastal areas) and time (the past decade). The more focused your topic, the easier and more effective your research and writing will be. 

 

Improve your writing and study skills! Book an appointment with a writing advisor and/or academic coach on OSCARplus.  Questions? Email skills@mcmaster.ca

References 
Buckley, J. (2009). Fit to print: The Canadian student’s guide to essay writing (7th ed.). Nelson. 

Trent University (n. d.). Topic and thesis development. Retrieved from http://www.trentu.ca/academicskills/documents/TopicandThesisDevelopment.pdf 

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