by Matthew Cooper
Staring at a blank page hours before an essay is due is every student’s nightmare. For many, the hardest part of any writing assignment is coming up with the perfect topic—and with good reason. Simply put: The topic of every essay you write really matters. While the perfect topic can make up for small writing deficiencies, no amount of writing style or grammar knowledge can make up for a flat idea. Instructors and professors are only human, and after grading twenty, thirty, or even fifty essays in a night, if you spark their interest, you’re heads and shoulders above your peers.
But depending on your interest in the class, your background in the subject, and your instructor, coming up with the perfect essay topic isn’t always so easy. Over the course of six years, two undergraduate degrees, two years of working in a writing center, and a year of assisting professors in English classrooms, I have only begun to understand what really makes the perfect essay. Great topics can be an enigmatic, nefarious sort, but with a little patience and persistence, anyone can find an “A” topic which will wow their instructor. Over the years I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks to help foster those perfect topics which, if followed, will not only help you feel confident about the topic you’ve selected, but know it will grow into a paper you’ll be proud of.
1. Pick a topic which interests you. This golden rule of writing may seem like a no-brainer, but many students are afraid of selecting topics they’re passionate about. This aversion can stem from a fear of the instructor’s response, uncertainty if it fits the parameters of the assignment, a general anxiety of voicing their opinion, or any number of other factors. The truth is, however, this is the most important factor in the success of your writing. If you’re disinterested in your topic, it shows. Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and step bravely forward from the fray of copy-and-pasted essays. Your writing will display your interest, and your instructor will be impressed by the courage it took for you to write about what you care about. If you want that “A” you have to write with passion. The easiest way to do that: Put yourself out there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
2. Expand on a reading or lecture. Was there a lecture or reading from the class (or possibly even a different, similar course) which interested you, conflicted with your beliefs, or otherwise left you wanting more? The entirety of a subject is rarely covered in the time of a single lecture, and expanding on the ideas covered in class is a good way to display your interest in the subject, and likely strike your instructor’s area of interest. Most instructors love hearing opposing viewpoints during and after their lectures, furthering your chances of sticking out from the essays of your peers. Be sure to pick something you’re interested in, and find reputable, recent sources to back your points. Posing an alternate point of view can be great, but you’d better know your facts before your essay is sitting under the instructor’s nose. Chances are they know the subject backwards and forwards, and may respond to an antiquated, obsolete argument with equal disdain for which they ma! y rejoice in your presenting a fresh, tantalizing perspective.
3. What’s in the news? If you’re really lost, picking something topical is usually an easy way to go, but don’t get lazy with your selection. Pick a topic with multiple sides and analyze each to its fullest. Picking a recent topic will likely mean you’re coving something not from your textbook—which is a good thing—but regurgitating what’s said on a single newscast or website is a sure-bet for a flat, uninspired essay. Pick something a little controversial with application to the course and try to stay neutral in your analysis until reaching a conclusion. If your essay is good enough, your instructor might just incorporate it into a future lecture.
4. Talk with your instructor. Whether you want a little clarification or simply can’t come up with a topic on your own, the instructor is your greatest resource. Check your syllabus. Visit during their office hours. Speak after class. Email. Get your instructor on your side and voice your concerns. Most instructors will be sympathetic and understanding of any problem you bring and are more than willing to help. Even if you’re confident about your topic, it never hurts to stop in and show them a draft or just run the idea by the professor. It’s an insurance policy that guarantees you’re penning an essay they’ll enjoy reading, and it eases any concerns you may have.
5. Have an idea selected before you start writing. Along with, “pick a topic which interests you,” this is an unquestioned rule of successful essay writing. If you’re waiting to start thinking about your essay until the night before the deadline, you’re setting yourself up for failure. What if you can’t come up with an idea? What if you can’t find any sources? What if you’re unsure if your topic fits the parameters of the assignment? Before you ever put finger to keyboard or pen to paper, stop and think a little about what you’re writing. Are there counterpoints to be made? In how many ways can you tie this into the course? How much of your opinion would be appropriate or is required for the essay to succeed? You need a plan before sitting down to write an essay of academic rigor.
Don’t sit around waiting for the gods of Economics 101 or Engineering 799 to grace you with the perfect essay hours before the deadline. Take some time and prepare, follow the steps above, and, most importantly, write about something you care about. As long as you’re doing that—and following the guidelines of the assignment—everything should fall into place. Writing is a rare opportunity for you to contribute to the conversation of your education. Be proud and make your voice heard.
Matt has a BA in English and a BS in Marketing. He is a freelance writer and has been published in the literary journals of Iowa State University and the University of Idaho.
See also, Academics.