Choosing a Topic and Developing a Thesis Help (page 2)
Rules of Thumb for Choosing a Topic
The writing process involves making many decisions. You begin by deciding what to write about. To ensure that you make a good choice, follow these four rules. The topic you choose must:
- be interesting to you and your audience
- fulfill the writing assignment
- be sufficiently focused
- be able to be turned into a question
The first rule for choosing a topic is simple: Make certain it holds your interest. If it's not interesting to you, why would it be to your reader? Your lack of enthusiasm will be evident, and your writing is likely to be dull, dry, and uninspired as a result. If you are interested in your topic, you can convey that feeling to your reader, no matter what the subject. Your reader will be drawn in by your lively prose and passionate assertions.
But what if you aren't really interested in any of the ideas you came up with while brainstorming? What if the assignment is about a subject you find dull? The challenge in this situation is to find some approach to the topic that does interest you. For example, your contemporary American politics teacher has asked you to write an essay about a healthcare policy issue—something you've never thought or cared much about. Your first brainstorming session resulted in a number of ideas, but nothing interesting enough to keep you writing for five pages. In that case, it makes sense to brainstorm again, using another method.
Before you begin, make a short list of some of the things that do interest you. Even if they seem totally unrelated to the subject, you may be able to make a connection. For example, one student listed the following five areas of interest:
- Tom Clancy novels
- the Internet
She then saw several possible connections with her topic, even before brainstorming again. She could write about healthcare coverage for music therapy, healthcare policy resources on the Internet, or how accident statistics affect healthcare policies.
Finding a Focus
Essay assignments often ask you to write about a very broad subject area. For example, your topic might be to write about the Cold War or about a novel you read in class. You can approach such boundless assignments in many ways.
To write a successful essay, you need to focus your topic. If, for example, you are given the topic of genetic engineering, you must find a specific issue or idea within that broad topic. Otherwise, you will have enough material for a book. You might decide to write about how genetic engineering is used to find cures for diseases, to create "super" crops, or to plan a family with "designer" children.
In other words, you need to focus your material so it can be adequately covered within the confines of the essay. If you try to cover too much, you'll have to briefly mention many subtopics, without delving into the "meat" of your topic. If your topic is too narrow, though, you'll run out of ideas in a page or two, and probably fail to meet the requirements of your assignment.
It may take time to sufficiently focus the topic. Here's how one student narrowed it down:
It took three steps, but her "sufficiently narrowed topic" has the right level of focus and can be adequately examined within the essay structure.
Turning Your Topic into a Question
A thesis is the main idea of an essay, and is a response to a topic. In the previous example, the student narrowed her topic to "my generation's beliefs about the balance between work and play." To come up with a thesis, she can restate that topic in the form of a question: "What are my generation's beliefs about the balance between work and play?" The answer to that question might be, "My generation believes that life should be made up of equal parts of work and play."
She might never use that sentence in her essay; she could reword it while writing, or after writing, a first draft. Nevertheless, this exercise gives her a point from which she can launch into writing. Here are two more examples of the evolution of a tentative thesis from an assignment, a focused topic, and a question.
When Assignments Ask Questions
Essay assignments that pose a question allow you to quickly formulate a thesis. In fact, they are often called "thesis-bearing" assignments for that reason. For example:
Television is a powerful medium. What do you think is the ideal place of television in our lives, and why? Explain. How close is reality to that ideal?
Both questions are thesis bearing. Here is a student's freewriting response.
I think the ideal place of television is that it should be for information and entertainment, but that it shouldn't be watched too much. The reality is far from the ideal because too many people spend too much time watching TV to the point that they don't communicate with each other or do things that they should be doing to be physically and emotionally healthy (examples: exercise or homework).
This answer is a good tentative thesis. It explains how the student feels about the subject, it responds to the assignment, and it is focused.
To write an effective essay, you need a topic that interests you and fulfills the assignment. It must be sufficiently focused so the amount of material you will cover can be adequately explored within the confines of an essay. Narrow down your topic until you can turn it into a specific question. The answer to this question should serve as your tentative thesis—the main idea that you will address and develop in your essay.
Exercises for this topic can be found at Choosing a Topic and Developing a Thesis Practice.
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