Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Narrowing an Essay or Paper Topic

Tapping a Pencil, Image by Rennett Stowe

Don't Know What to Write? You're Not Alone!

Has a teacher ever given you a writing topic and left it to you to choose how to write about it? What freedom! What opportunity! What limitless choices!

Sometimes, however, such limitless options can cause what's called "decision paralysis," or a person's inability to make a choice when too many choices are available. This can lead to procrastination, confusion, or even an avoidance of the writing assignment entirely. In order to prevent such damaging decision paralysis, what a student needs in this situation is a plan.

Limit your Possibilities by Carefully Adhering to your Teacher's Guidelines

If your teacher has offered some set guidelines, please remember to read those guidelines first, before establishing a plan that might be outside of his or her guidelines. For example, does your writing need to be within one of the two major categories of either fiction or non-fiction? Is there a word count requirement, or has your teacher asked you to write a research paper, a report, or an essay? Has your teacher defined a specific mode, like exposition, argumentation, narration, or description?  What about a specific strategy, like "compare and contrast" or "problem-solution?"  What is the scope of the assignment?  Are works of creative writing allowed or expected? Do you need to include research?  Always be sure to stick to the requirements you've been given, and if you are unsure, the first person to ask is your teacher. Sticking to the requirements can help you narrow down your options so you won't feel lost in a sea of choices.

Narrow a Broad Topic

If you are given a broad topic, or if you're interested in writing about a broad topic, it's best if you narrow your topic to a manageable size before starting to draft your assignment. There are a few ways to do that: prewriting, formulating a research question, or substituting vague and ambiguous words for specific language.


First, you can use prewriting techniques, like listing, clustering or mind-mapping, to brainstorm some ideas that surround the topic. For instance, if your topic is "Ants," you could write an entire book about ants! To make the topic smaller in scope, think about what is it about ants that might make them interesting to you. Make your list long, or your bubble-map or cluster as large as possible to get down as many ideas as you can. Some of your subtopics might include "Annoying at Picnics," "Fun to Watch Work," or "How Ants Build Anthills."  Feel free to include your opinions and attitudes about ants in your prewriting, too:  An engineering or physics student may have a note on his or her mind-map that states "Ants are ingenious builders," a statement that could easily later become a thesis statement.

Research Questions

Another way to narrow a broad topic is to come up with research questions you want to answer about your topic that incorporate your specific aims and interests.  For instance, if you are a nursing student, you might want to find out about the best ways to treat ant bites in your region:  "What are the best ways to treat ant bites in New Mexico?"  If you're interested in narratives or journalistic writing, you may wonder if there is a story you might want to tell about ants: "Are there any odd or interesting true stories about ants?"  Furthermore, a business student could be interested in creating an analogy between organizational behavior in large corporations and the organizational behavior of ants: "How are corporate organizations similar to ant colonies?" The possibilities are endless, even with a topic as broad and as seemingly mundane as "ants."

Specific Language

Furthermore, substituting vague and ambiguous language for specific language is a great trick for narrowing a broad statement into a narrow statement that might better fit the requirements of a particular assignment.  For example, instead of an essay about "Ants," you could narrow your topic to "Ants of South America," or even narrower, "Dinoponera."  As you begin your preliminary research about "Dinoponera," you may learn that some experts claim they make excellent pets and other experts disagree.  You may decide to investigate that disagreement as a research project.

Choose a Purpose and an Audience

Take a look at your prewriting or potential research questions. Based on these ideas, can you come up with a purpose for writing your assignment other than, of course, because your teacher wants you to complete the assignment and you want a good grade? Can you think of an intended audience for your ideas?  If you could tell your ideas about your chosen topic to anyone, who would it be?


Let's break it down: To continue with the example of "Ants" as your topic and the narrowed topic of "Ants Being Ingenious Builders," you could jot down that your purpose for writing is to "explain to others how ingenious ants are when building and how we can imitate them in architectural design," or to "write a story that shows how ants work together ingeniously when building."


Even better, you can combine these purpose statements with your choice of an audience by rephrasing them to include the specific audience. Instead of using the word "others" in your statement, try substituting "my classmates," "my mom and dad," "my little sister," or "my science teacher."  Depending on how you define your intended audience, you may or may not need to include certain key pieces of information: It all depends on what your intended audience already knows and what they need to know in order to understand your ideas. 

After you choose a purpose and audience, write down your purpose statement, set it aside, but keep it handy. After this activity you may be ready to begin your assignment, but you may also still feel like there are too many options.

Match a Genre with Your Narrowed Topic, Your Purpose, and Your Audience

Choosing a genre, or a type of writing, for your writing project will help you further narrow down how you will tackle that writing project. There are so many ways to write, however, it's challenging to think of them all.  Choosing a genre can be almost as difficult as choosing a topic.

However, help is available. Colorado State University has published an online list of a genres they have named "A Brief List of Genres," and it includes 60 different options! The key to not being overwhelmed by such a list is to make sure you match your assignment requirements, narrowed topic, purpose, and chosen audience to one of the genres.

Some of your options could include the following:
  • An expository, argumentative, descriptive, or narrative essay
  • A poem, song, or fictional story
  • A tribute or toast
  • A comic, script, or storyboard
  • An interview or biography
  • A research paper

You have to ask yourself, though, which of these will help you communicate the most effectively to your audience in a way that meets your purpose. If your purpose statement reads, "I will write about ants to explain to my 5 year-old sister how ingenious they are when building," an argumentative essay may not be the best option. However, a storyboard, a song, a sonnet, or a simple informative essay might help her to truly understand your opinion about ants. On the other hand, if you are writing for your science teacher, an interview with an expert on ants or a research report about ants might be a great choice.

In the end, when given such freedom to choose how best to write about your topic, the choice really is up to you. However, don't fall victim to decision paralysis! Instead, use your imagination to generate a plan, give yourself time to generate a long list of good ideas, and then carefully choose the best options for your assignment requirements, topic, purpose, and audience.

Want to read more about different types of writing?  Try

Myths about Writing Essays
Secrets to Writing a Great Descriptive Essay
The Narrative Frame: Prewriting a Narrative Essay

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

Try my complete online essay writing course on Udemy.com called "Quality Paragraph and Essay Writing."  Use the coupon code link to get 50% off the regular price of the course. Receive a certificate of completion when you've finished!


Colorado State University (n.d.) A brief list of genres. Retrieved from http://multigenre.colostate.edu/genrelist.html

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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