Coming up with your topic
- On this page:
- Reading to Write
- Using Critical Theory
- Informal Strategies for Invention
- Formal Strategies for Invention
- Focusing Your Idea
- Broadening Your Topic
- Narrowing Your Topic
People read differently for different purposes. When you read in order to cram for a quiz, you might scan only the first line of every paragraph of a text to remind yourself of the argument's main points. When you read for pleasure, you might permit yourself to linger for a long while over a particular phrase or image that you find appealing. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that when you read in order to write a paper, you must read as a writer. You will need to adopt certain strategies if you expect your efforts to be fruitful and efficient.
When you know that you are going to write a paper about a book or article, prepare yourself to read actively. Don't read a text simply to get its information. This method of reading is passive: you "receive" the text as you read, and you hold off making any intellectual response to the text until after you've finished reading it.
This way of reading doesn't get you very far. While reading passively might enable you to understand the gist of the argument, you'll likely overlook the many twists and turns the argument took on the way to making its point. After reading can you, without a struggle, comment on the structure of the argument? Its use of language? Its wealth of detail?
Probably not. And so you have to read the book again, this time making notes to yourself about the argument and its development. While a second - or third or fourth - reading of a text is always a good idea, it's certainly better to read well the first time through. You can then ensure that your subsequent readings will take you deeper and farther than you might otherwise have gone.
But how do you become an active reader?
Break the Linear Tradition
To become an active reader, you have to rid yourself of the idea that the most efficient way to write a paper is to read first, think later, and write last of all. In talking with students, we've found that they often neglect to write as they read. When you read, do you stop to jot down questions? Do you challenge the writer? Do you search your soul for what you really believe about the topic at hand? Once you've begun writing, do you ever go back to the text? Perhaps you go back to find a piece of evidence that will support your claims, but do you do the kind of re-reading that will force you to reconsider the text and your own position on it? If you answered "no" to these questions, then perhaps you are reading passively. Your thinking will not go as far as it might, and your papers will suffer accordingly.
Trust Your Gut
Once you understand that you ought to be reading actively, you'll begin to pay more attention to your reactions to the text. It's not a bad idea to keep track of how a text makes you feel while you are reading it. If you find yourself getting angry or growing bored, ask yourself why. Is the argument coming apart? Are there too many details? Not enough? Is the writer a misogynist? bigot? liberal? conservative? jerk? Pay attention to your own responses. They might be the seeds for your paper.
It's possible, too, that you'll find yourself "wowed" by a text. Or that some particular detail, which the author touches on in passing, seems to you to hold the key to a problem that you've been thinking about for a long time. Again, pay attention to yourself as you read. Monitor your reactions. Interrogate them. They might lead you to an interesting paper topic.
Enter the Conversation
When a writer writes a book she is, in a sense, inviting you into an ongoing conversation. She is taking a position in the great human debate, and she is asking you to take yours. When you write a paper in college, you are entering this conversation.
Understand that scholarship is the written exchange of a particular community - in this case, the academic community. As a student, you have joined this community, attending it like you might attend a cocktail party that has the peculiar quality of being centuries-long. In essence, what is expected of you as a student isn't so very different from what is expected from you as a party-goer. As is true of any party, there are principles of conduct that govern your behavior. Nevertheless, the basic principles of conversation are the same in the academy as they are at the cocktail party: you must listen well, you must think about what you are hearing and your response to it, and you must contribute to the conversation in a way that is relevant, thoughtful, and interesting.
In order to enter the conversation fully as a writer, you must first enter the conversation fully as a reader. Pay attention to the text. Take note of how you feel about what the author is saying. Then consider the argument that the author is presenting to you. Are there gaps in the argument? Do you want to challenge these gaps? Do you want to fill them in? Do you want to acknowledge the validity of the argument and then apply it to things that the author hasn't seemed to consider?
All of these questions move you beyond your own reactions to a consideration of the argument. Your conversation with the writer has begun.
Use the Margins
Maybe the best practical advice we can give you about reading more actively is to make use of the margins. In some important ways, an unmarked book is an unread book. Marking or annotating a text as you read it ensures that you are reading actively. Even the simple act of underlining a passage requires you to ask yourself what is most important in a text. The act of weighing importance is one way of breaking the habit of passive reading.
But you can do much more in the margins than simply make note of important passages. You can ask questions in the margins. You can draw arrows, establishing obscure connections in the text. You can note patterns of imagery or language as you see them. You can locate contradictions. You can get feisty, even, and call the author out for a debate.
You also might find that you can demystify a text by writing in it. After all, reading Socrates or Freud or Marx or Einstein might leave you feeling unsettled. Intimidated, even. These minds seem so original, so perfect in their way, that it seems impossible that your professor is asking you to make some comment on them. Even when you read unknown writers you might feel intimidated. After all, they are published. Their work is deemed good enough to find its way into print. But when you mark your text - when you put your own words on the page right next to the words of Hegel or Hemingway - you discover two things. First is that there is "room" for you on the page. Neither Hegel nor Hemingway has the last word on any subject. Second, you come to see that your process is not so different from theirs. They read texts and they responded to them by writing. Now you are, too.
Moving Outside the Text
One important idea to understand when you read is that every text has a context. Remember that every writer is in conversation: with other writers, with history, with the forces of her culture, with the events of his time. It is helpful, for example, to read Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud with some knowledge of their moment in history. Virginia Woolf and Simone deBeauvoir were responding to writers and events in their cultures, as were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. When you understand the context of a work, you can better see the forces that moved the author to write that work. You will gain clarity about what and why the writer was writing. You may even gain clarity about what you yourself would like to say.
But how do you place a work in context if you know nothing about the historical time in which it was written? You might take a trip to the library or do some on-line research. Perhaps your professor has reserved some books on the subject. Maybe she has discussed the context of a particular book in class.
Even if you know nothing about the context of a particular book or writer, you know a lot about the context of a particular reader: you. You are a member of a complex culture that provides you with a particular context for your reading experience. Your gender, race, and socioeconomic class provide context(s) for your understanding of a text. You bring your own context(s) with you when you read texts as diverse as the Declaration of Independence, the Koran, the films of Fellini, and the transcriptions of the Watergate tapes.
One word of caution: context needs to be examined with care. Don't assume that the context of your own class or gender or culture is informing you correctly. Read context as actively and as rigorously as you read text!
Reading Differently in the Disciplines
Each of the different academic disciplines - English, History, Sociology, Psychology, Biology, and so on - constructs knowledge differently. Each of the disciplines therefore asks you to read differently. Sometimes, in fact, they ask you to "read" things that you wouldn't normally consider as text. For example, in a Sociology class, you might be asked to "read" the behaviors of a particular group of people. In a History class, you might be asked to "read" a sequence of events. In a Geography class, you might be asked to "read" a certain space. You might, in the course of your college career, be asked to "read" a painting, a film, an advertisement, an event, a laboratory experiment, or any number of fascinating things.
Before you take on the task of reading any sort of text, you'll want to make sure that you understand the discipline in which the text was created and in which you are working. What are the conventions and practices for reading, writing, and thinking in this particular discipline? How can you best enact these? Talk with your professors, who are experts in their fields and who can help you to better understand the practices they themselves use to construct knowledge.
Resources for Improving Reading
Some students have other, more general problems with reading. Perhaps they read too slowly, or they have a problem with retention. If you feel that you are one of these students, or if you simply want to learn strategies for reading more effectively, contact the Academic Skills Center for information about their workshops and other resources.
Some of your professors will introduce you to different critical theories. These theories - which might include feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, psycho-analytic criticism, new historicism, deconstruction, and reader-response criticism - can lead you to understand texts in new ways.
Understanding critical theory requires serious study. It's not our aim here to review for you all of the important theorists and their contributions to their fields. What we do aim to do is to provide you with a very brief overview of the important theories and to show you how these theories might provide you with different "lenses" for reading. Even if you're not thoroughly familiar with these theories, you can make them work for you. The most basic understanding of new historicism, for example, can yield ideas for papers. Bringing feminist theory to a text will help you to see things in it that you otherwise might not have seen. And so on.
At the risk of being simplistic we've summarized very briefly what these theories are and how they might be used to facilitate your reading and writing processes. Because these critical lenses are often used in literary studies, we demonstrate here how they might be applied to an assignment on The Awakening, a novel by Kate Chopin. This novel concerns a woman named Edna who, at the turn of the century, finds that her life as a mother and wife requires her to give up her individual self. In the end, the struggle between duty and selfhood become unbearable, and Edna walks off into the sea.
Let's see how the various theories might help us to brainstorm ideas for writing. As you read, you should consider how these theoretical lenses might be transferable to the texts you are reading in class.
(Note: For more fully developed examples of these ways of reading, please see the Bedford Books Edition of The Awakening, Nancy A. Walker, Editor.)
Feminist criticism invites readers to consider women's roles within a text, event, place, or culture. It also attempts to establish within the academy and the culture a place for women writers who have been neglected. Accordingly, a feminist critic might consider the publishing history of The Awakening, examining reasons for its long absence from the canon. Another common strategy in feminist theory is to examine how texts perpetuate patriarchal attitudes and male-dominated power structures. When applied to The Awakening, this way of reading might lead a writer to consider ways in which the patriarchal culture drives Edna to suicide.
Marxist criticism invites the reader to view a text in economic terms, focusing on the issues of privilege and power. It encourages the reader to see a text against the backdrop of a larger drama, in which the working classes are oppressed by the privileged and the wealthy. When applied to The Awakening, this way of reading might lead us to consider what elements of Edna's economically privileged background contribute to her undoing. Or we might discuss ways in which Edna's dependence on her servants interferes with her discovery of a new, independent self.
Springing from the works of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, psycho-analytic criticism argues essentially that everyone is inherently neurotic. Accordingly, students working in this school of criticism try to understand a text in terms of a writer's or a character's neurosis. This way of reading The Awakening might lead one to argue that Edna's suicide is in fact the result of her own neurosis, and not the result of her position in a patriarchal or bourgeois culture.
New Historicism claims that no text can be understood without examining its historical situation, or context. Historical critics therefore examine the events and values that might have influenced the production of a text. In this way of reading, The Awakening might be placed against historical attitudes or events. The writer might want to investigate how Edna's Creole environment promotes or serves as an obstacle to her self-discovery. Or she might want to investigate property laws and how they treated (or mis-treated) women at that time.
In this way of reading, critics deconstruct - or take apart - the internal structure of a text by looking for its contradictions. Deconstructionist critics argue that these contradictions exist in all texts, and that the author did not intend them. By pointing to the lack of coherence in a text, and by undermining the idea of an author's intention, deconstructionists argue against the possibility of a text having any single meaning. While reading The Awakening, a deconstructionist might look at the language that Edna uses to explain herself, noting that this language both justifies and lies about her experience. A deconstructionist would delight in how Edna's language reveals even as it conceals, illustrating an Edna who is painfully aware and yet perilously unaware of her situation.
Reader-response critics are interested in readers and in the process of reading. In this school of criticism, meaning is not created by the writer alone. Rather, readers are active and important participants in the meaning-making process. They complete meaning. Reader-response critics argue that a text is full of gaps and that these gaps work on a reader, forcing her to make connections, fill in spaces, and so on. A reader-response critic reading The Awakening might examine the text for gaps and then catalogue the challenges these gaps make to the reader as she struggles to make meaning.
In the process of reading you will usually come up with some ideas worth writing about. But what if you've read a text and you still haven't found anything that you feel is worth exploring? Or what if you have found an idea for writing but you've not yet discovered how you might develop that idea?
In either of these situations you might want to take the time to try one of the following strategies for invention:
Brainstorming as an invention practice is useful because it is a quick and efficient way of laying out what you know about a subject. By brainstorming you might also see what you DON'T know about a topic, which might move you to read and think further.
For the sake of argument, let's imagine that you are taking a class about technology and communication, and you've been asked to write a paper on how technology is changing the way we communicate. The topic is open because the professor wants you to work through this vast topic to find a smaller topic that interests you. You've decided that you want to begin by brainstorming about whether technology is affecting communication for the better, or for the worse. You sit down and spend just a few minutes making a quick list, noting five pros and five cons:
- Communication is quicker and easier than ever before
- Technologies like facetime and skype allow us to talk face to face, virtually, even when we're far away
- Facebook is a way of maintaining a community of family and friends (you'll never forget a birthday again)
- Twitter is a great way of sharing news, of seeing what people are thinking, and what topics are trending (kind of like a modern-day version of the water-cooler talk that my dad always refers to)
- New technologies bring new possibilities, so we can look forward to improved communication infrastructures in the future
- People are always plugged in to some device
- Between constant texting and multiple daily log-ins to facebook and other social media, we've lost the ability to be alone with our thoughts
- We've also lost the ability to control our privacy
- Current generations are engaging less frequently in face-to-face conversations
- My generation might not be learning how to read facial cues and body language - Is this why we use emoticons and lols? So people will know how to read us?
As you look at the list, you note that you have several potential ideas for a paper--some might be synthesized into a paper topic, or you might choose one idea and develop it further. For the sake of illustration, we'll imagine that the final point catches your fancy, and that you've decided to try to develop the idea further, by freewriting.
Freewriting is similar to brainstorming in that it is a quick and informal way to develop an idea. But while brainstorming most often involves making a list of ideas, freewriting requires that you try to elaborate upon these ideas by writing about them, without paying attention to syntax or grammar. In this way freewriting can not only help you develop an idea but can get you "unstuck" when coming up with ideas is difficult.
Here is an example of how one might use freewriting to develop the aforementioned idea:
OK, so I'm supposed to write a paper about technology and how it impacts our ability to communicate affectively and effectively, which I believe is an issue worth investigating. On a personal level I think about how much of my social interaction is done via text or chat, and I wonder if my reliance on texting is limiting my ability to read people's feelings. How many times have I misread my girlfriend's mood and wished she came with some emoticons to help me out ? (lol) But scholars seem to be taking this issue seriously. In class, we read a lot of articles about how technology in general and social media in particular are affecting the cognitive and social and emotional growth of children of adolescents. Some scholars think that technology is getting in the way of our emotional development—they say that emoticons (for instance) are standing in for more complex emotions, and that slapping an emoticon on a message relieves the reader of the responsibility of reading for emotional subtexts. But not all scholars agree. I was really impressed by an article written by a group of linguists studying Japanese chat rooms to see how housewives used emoticons to express their feelings. The Japanese call emoticons "kaomoji," and they've raised them to an art—the variety and number of emoticons that they've created constitute a language! It blew my mind. This article demonstrates how Kaomoji helps women to create voices in the chatrooms, and therefore provides them with a sense of agency. I think I'd like to think more about text abbreviations and emoticons as a kind of language, see what scholars have to say about this language. It would be fun to do a paper on that.
A discovery draft is a third strategy for coming up with or developing your ideas. A discovery draft is similar to freewriting in that you can write freely, ignoring the structure and the development of your ideas for the time being. You can also forget about matters of syntax and style.
But writing a discovery draft is different from freewriting in that a discovery draft makes a conscious attempt to focus on and to develop an idea or cluster of ideas. In other words, a discovery draft is like freewriting with an agenda. Because you have an agenda, discovery drafts tend to be more structured than freewritings. They also tend to be written more or less coherently, in complete sentences.
Think of writing a discovery draft as writing a letter to an imaginary friend about your history (or economics or government) paper. You might first summarize for your friend's benefit the texts you've read and the problems they've presented. You might then raise questions about the texts. You might challenge the writers on certain points. You might note contradictions. You might point out a certain part of the argument that you found compelling. You might address and then work out any confusion that you have about your topic. In writing the discovery draft you might have an "ah-ha!" moment, in which you see something that you hadn't seen before. And you break off in mid-sentence to explore it.
In a sense, the "ah-ha!" moment is the point of the discovery draft. When writing the discovery draft, your thoughts are focused on your topic. You are giving language to your questions and observations. In this process the mind almost always stumbles across something new - makes a discovery. And with this discovery, a paper is often launched.
Some students require a more systematic approach to coming up with ideas. Every writer over time will develop her own system of invention. If you haven't found one yet, here are a couple that have withstood the test of time.
Tagmemics is a system that allows you to look at a single object from three different perspectives. The hope is that one of these perspectives (or even all three) can help you to determine a subject for writing. Tagmemics involves seeing your topic:
- As a particle (as a thing in itself)
- As a wave (as a thing changing over time)
- As part of a field (as a thing in its context)
Let's say that you want to write a paper on Malcolm X's role in the civil rights movement. If you use tagmemics as a system of invention, you will begin by looking at Malcolm X as a thing in himself. In other words, what are the characteristics of Malcolm X as a man? The characteristics of his philosophy?
You next might consider Malcolm X in terms of how his role in the civil rights movement changed over time. Certainly Malcolm X experienced a radical shift in his beliefs about civil rights; you might explore this shift and the consequences both for Malcolm X and for the movement as a whole. You might also consider how history has viewed Malcolm X over time. You might have discovered in your reading that there exists today some division of opinion as to whether or not Malcolm X ought to be considered a civil rights leader. What forces have contributed to this dispute, and how has the nature of the dispute changed over time?
Finally, consider Malcolm X as a thing in context. Relate him to his culture, to his moment in time. Look for the causes that produced Malcolm X, as well as the effect he had on his own historical period. Or compare or contrast him with other civil rights figures to see what special contribution he made to the movement and its history. You might even connect Malcolm X with unlikely events and figures in order to provide a wide context for his work and his life.
There are infinite questions to ask here. The point is that tagmemics can ask questions which encourage focused answers - the kind of answers that help you to write thoughtful, interesting, and well-conceived essays.
As one of the fathers of rhetoric, Aristotle worked to formalize a system for coming up with, organizing, and expressing ideas. We are concerned here with what Aristotle called the topoi - that is, a system of specific strategies for invention. Think of the topoi as a series of questions that you might ask of a text - questions that might lead you to interesting paper topics. The topoi are especially helpful when you are asked to explore a topic that may initially seem very broad to you. Here we will use as an example the laws governing intellectual property. Please note that while the topoi can help you to come up with a topic, you will still have work to do to develop a suitable scholarly question.
1) Use Definition
There are two ways in which you might use definition to come up with a topic idea. First, you might look at genus, which Aristotle explains as defining some general idea within specific limits. For example, you might in your paper define intellectual property law—what it is, and how it functions within the limits of a particular industry.
The second way to use definition is by thinking in terms of division. In other words, try to think of your subject in terms of its parts, classes, and so on. Here, you might define the components of a law, perhaps with the aim of determining their relevance to a particular incident or dispute.
2) Use Comparison
Aristotle identifies three ways in which you might make comparisons as a way of generating ideas. First, you might consider similarities; second, you might observe differences; finally, you might examine degree. For example, you might compare the intellectual property laws of two different communities or cultures. Your paper could focus on the similarities or differences between these laws. Alternatively, you might want to consider to what degree various intellectual property laws protect or obstruct innovation.
3) Explore Relationship
Aristotle determined three ways in which we can explore relationships as a way of coming up with ideas for writing. The first of these ways is to consider the cause of your subject, or its effects. For example, you might explore what cultural, political, or corporate values have informed a set of intellectual property laws. Conversely, you might examine the effects of these laws on certain individuals or industries.
You might also take a look at a subject's antecedent and consequences. In other words, you might ask the question of your subject: "If this, then what?" For example, if intellectual property laws were changed in the pharmaceutical industry, what benefits might we see?
Finally, you might look for contradictions, incompatible statements, or controversy. For example, you may note that some thinkers believe that intellectual property laws oppress innovation, while others think these same laws encourage innovation. Your paper could address this controversy.
4) Examine Circumstance
Aristotle offers two ways that you might examine circumstances in order to come up with an idea for a paper. The first is to consider the possible and the impossible. Sometimes you can construct an interesting argument by considering what is possible and what is not. Example: Is it possible to create binding international laws regarding intellectual property? Why or why not?
Another strategy is to consider the past, or to look to the future. For instance, examining current trends, you might consider the probability of a country revising its intellectual property laws in the future.
5) Rely on Testimony
The opinions of others can be a source for your paper. Look to authorities, testimonials, statistics, maxims, laws, and precedents. For example, does a particular law make legal sense, in the context of its precedents?
OK. You've done some preliminary brainstorming. Perhaps you've even completed a discovery draft. The problem sitting before you now is that you have too many ideas and you don't know what to do with them. Or the ideas you've come up with don't seem to be adequately academic. What do you try next?
Nutshelling is the simple process of trying to explain the main point of your observations in a few sentences - in a nutshell. When you put your thoughts in a nutshell, you come to see just how those thoughts fit together. You see how each thought is relevant to the others, and what the overall "point" is. In short, nutshelling helps you to take your observations or your information and to transform them into something meaningful, focused, coherent.
Imagine, for example, that in your writing class you are asked to reflect on your writing experience before you came to college. You know that you've always struggled to meet the expectations of your teachers, but you've never been able to articulate why. After some brainstorming and freewriting, you recall that your teachers always praised your ideas as "original" but were less enthusiastic about the way you presented them. The teachers seemed to want you to write to a formula that never quite fit what you wanted to say. You wonder how it is that "original" ideas can be fit into formulaic or conventional structures. As you contemplate this dilemma, some questions begin to take shape. Should teachers expect originality from student writers? And if they do expect originality, why do they promote certain modes of writing, such as the timed essay or the five-paragraph theme? Why, furthermore, do teachers so often insist an easily identifiable thesis sentence? Why do they flinch when they see fragments or run-ons? Why don't they encourage experimentation with structure, syntax, and style?
Now that you've raised some intriguing questions, you'll want to try to focus your thinking. What are you trying to say, in a nutshell? Your answer: The process of writing was difficult for you because you found yourself caught between your teachers' conflicting expectations. On the one hand, your teachers encouraged you to be original in you thinking; on the other, they insist that you conform to conventions. Where did these conflicting expectations come from? And what effect did they have on you as a writer?
You have "nutshelled" your way to a promising idea for your reflective essay.
What happens when you've put your thoughts in a nutshell and they seem too "small"? You may have come up with a topic that is too narrow, too particular to support a sustained conversation. Now what?
First, try to make connections.
Using pen and paper, begin to sketch your idea. Put your idea at the center of the page, then list and cluster other observations that you find interesting. If you see connections, draw arrows. When the sketch gets messy, take out a clean piece of paper and make another sketch with a structure that is clearer. After two or three rounds of sketching, you may be surprised to find yourself looking at an interesting web of ideas, where before you had only a single observation.
Second, turn your idea inside out.
If your thought seems too small, consider the other side(s) of the matter. What do other scholars have to say on the topic you're exploring? What do your classmates have to say? How can you use their perspectives to broaden your own? Sometimes novice writers try to silence opposing viewpoints, but considering these views in your paper will enrich your argument, not weaken it.
Third, consider the context.
Every text is written in the context of other texts; every idea is a response to other ideas. If your idea or observation seems too small, try to articulate the bigger conversation of which it is part. By exploring and articulating the context of your idea, you will most certainly broaden the scope of your argument.
But what if your topic seems too big to handle? What do you do then?
First, test your claim.
Broad, general statements open themselves up to challenges. If you say that something is generally true, someone will step forward to inform you of the many exceptions to your assertion. So, test your claim. Consider your exceptions before your readers do. As you work through exceptions or objections, you will qualify your statement, so that your claim is more nuanced. The result will be a more focused topic.
Then look for examples.
Remember: "broad" is also "vague." Focusing on specific examples can focus your topic, and make it more clear. Also remember that you are writing a paper, and not a book. Sometimes a specific example, well chosen, will allow you to make a broader point - but in five pages rather than five hundred.
Finally, consider the context.
Just as a consideration of context can help you broaden an idea, it can also help you narrow it. Contexts are constructed out of particulars. Pay attention to the particulars, and you'll be able to narrow your focus appropriately.