Choosing a paper topic: 3 foolproof techniques to go from indecision to a great essay

expository writing

Title_ How to Study Efficiently for Hours On End (With the Help of a Tomato) (10)We’ve all been there - you get an essay assignment and you’re just…not inspired. Stuck finding something to write about? I’ve got your back! First things first, read the book. I’m serious. If you’re low on time, read a thorough summary, and then actually read the important passages. Writing an essay on a text you haven’t read will only hurt your grade and your pride (believe me, I’ve tried it). Once you’ve read the book, try these three easy options to get you started on your essay!

(Disclaimer: make sure you read your assignment, and don’t pick a topic that doesn’t fit it! If your teacher/professor wants you to respond to a specific passage, theme, or question, make sure you do what they ask!)

Option 1: Start with a question

1. Think of a question.

Anything that made you go “hmm” when reading. “Why” and “how” questions are better than factual questions because they allow you engage more deeply with the text. You can try:

  • Character questions. Why does Viola in Twelfth Night decide to dress up like a man in the first place?
  • Writing style questions. Why is the narration of Their Eyes Were Watching God so different in tone from the way the characters speak?
  • Structure questions. Why does The Iliad start in the middle of the Trojan War rather than at the beginning?

All of these example questions require more thoughtful, creative thinking to answer, making them strong candidates for an essay.

2. Find passages.

Next, skim through the book and find passages that address the problem. For example, for Twelfth Night, I might look at the passage where Viola declares she will dress like a man and enter into Duke Orsino’s service. How is she received as a man? I can check out the passage where Viola, in disguise, meets Orsino. How might Viola have been received as a woman? I might look at the way Orsino, and other men in the play, treat Olivia, the other major female character.

3. Find answers.

Based on those passages, try to find an answer to your question. If you don’t find one definitive answer, that’s ok! Often, an essay will be more interesting if your conclusion is more complex. Use your thought process and creativity to make some interesting points about how the piece you’re studying works.

4. Make an argument.

Organize your passages into an argument, one that is compelling to defend. I like structuring essays like an experiment: hypothesis first, followed by evidence, and then your conclusion. In this way, you avoid repetition throughout your paper, and the whole thing will be more interesting and effective.

5. Now that you have an outline, you’re ready to write your paper!

Option 2: Start with a passage

1. Choose a passage.

It can be any passage you found interesting or pretty, or even one you specifically didn’t understand! Try:

  • A speech or long block of narration that gives you information about a character. Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s letter in Macbeth gives you a lot of insight to who she is, what she values, and what she wants from the world around her.
  • An introduction of a character. The first description of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady gives you a valuable first impression that evolves over the course of the novel.
  • A passage with exciting imagery. The imagery used when Huck watches the sunrise on the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is vibrantly detailed, which gives you a lot to unpack.

2. Close read the passage.

Close reading is a technique that helps you thoroughly analyze the wording of a text in order to get the most information out of it. Print out the passage and mark it up with your thoughts:

  • What do particular lines or phrases mean? Take note on your paper, even if it’s just a guess!
  • Are there any words you don’t know? Look them up.
  • Are there any references you can see to other parts of the work, or other pieces of literature? What relevance do you think those references have to this text?
  • How do you think the wording of the passage helps convey its meaning? What is its significance to the rest of the work?

3. Find other passages.

Look for other passages in the work that support your ideas. For example, if I’ve decided that Huck Finn’s sunrise is meant to show the southern wilds as an unspoiled paradise, I might find other descriptions of nature and additional descriptions of human civilization in the novel to compare and contrast.

4. Make an argument.

Organize your main passage and your supporting passages into a compelling argument based off of what you discovered through close reading. It’s ok to devote a lot space to the passages you close read – that’s the point!

5. Now that you have an outline, nail that paper!

Option 3: Start with a word

1. Find a word.

What’s a word that shows up often in the work? Or, one that seems important to the characters, plot, or imagery? Look for:

  • Frequency. The word “white” shows up 317 times in Moby Dick. What might that mean? Be careful to choose a word whose frequency is actually significant (I’m sure the words “and,” “a”, and “the” also show up a lot, but you’re not going to get much from them).
  • Importance. The word “fair” in Macbeth holds a lot of significance for the plot and for the characters. Which characters, plot points, or themes is this word associated with?
  • Imagery. The Odyssey’s sea imagery often uses interesting choices to paint the picture for the reader. For example, the sea is described with the word “wine,” which is a seemingly odd choice.

2. Look it up.

Find the word’s definition and its etymology (where the word came from and both its current and historical meanings). What are all the things the word can mean?

3. Find examples.

Using an online copy of the work, search for all instances of the word in the text. How are they similar? How are they different? What is the meaning of the word in different contexts? Does its meaning change over the course of the work? How does the author use the word to create meaning in the text?

4. Make an argument.

Organize those passages into an argument about the text. For example, I could argue that the word “fair” in Macbeth indicates falseness rather than fairness, as the Macbeths’ lies and deeds make the concepts of foul and fair bleed together, robbing both words of their meaning.

5. Now that you have an outline, make a paper!

Above all, keep in mind that the best arguments come from the text. You don’t need to pull them out of thin air – you already have everything you need. Do some reading and see what stands out to you. Good luck!

Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.

We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.

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Check out some other blog posts regarding writing below!:

Betwixt and between: difficult grammar rules explained

Five strategies to improve your writing

It’s All Greek to Me—How to Build Vocabulary from the Ground Up



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