Techniques for Defining and Developing a Topic Study Guide (page 2)
Techniques for Defining and Developing a Topic
If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul. - JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1749—1832) GERMAN POET, DRAMATIST, AND NOVELIST
This lesson reviews techniques for how to develop your topic. Whether or not you've been assigned a specific topic, you'll need to do some defining and refining work. You'll also learn here how to use the 5 Ws.
By Now You've read about and practiced several techniques to help you prepare to write:
- establishing your audience, point of view, and style
- concept mapping (or cluster diagramming)
Now it's time to tackle the problem of what to write. And the first step in that process is defining your topic. In most classroom situations, your teacher will have assigned a topic, but in the great majority of those cases, the assigned topic is so general and open-ended that you will be required to do significant narrowing and focusing before you can begin to write your essay.
Similarly, once you go on to other levels of schooling (high school, college, even graduate work), you will face the same task: Writing assignments purposely leave room for students to maneuver within them. One of the ways in which you are judged by your teachers is the skill with which you identify a particular angle to use in responding to the assignment. And the same is true for people out in the working world. Someday your boss may ask you to write up a memo or a report on some subject, and you will need to go through exactly the same steps of narrowing and focusing the topic that you are learning here. So it up and pay attention. This is important information that will be useful to you for the rest of your life.
Developing A Topic
Once you've done your freewriting, and identified your audience, your style, and your point of view, you must begin the development of your topic. Let's assume that you've been given the following assignment:
- "Write an essay about environmental issues in your community."
That's the whole assignment; no specifics or particulars are offered. Where to begin?
You may want to begin the development of your topic by taking a step backward and doing some freewriting on the general topic. You may find that an idea for a topic emerges during the freewriting process. However, freewriting is most often an effective strategy when you already have an assigned topic or at least a general idea of what you will be writing about. So for most writers, the process of developing a topic requires taking the following steps.
Create some categories of information about the general subject and ask yourself as many questions as you can think of that pertain to each subcategory you've created:
- questions that focus on recycling:
- Is there a recycling program in the town?
- Does my school practice recycling?
- Does my family practice recycling?
- Should businesses continue to be fined if they don't recycle?
- Is recycling really helping the environment or is it just a Band-Aid?
- questions that focus on energy use:
- What effect does the airport have on the atmosphere?
- Should cars with only one passenger be banned from the freeways?
- Is the factory outside of town creating air pollution?
- questions that focus on the future:
- How is global warming affecting the town's daily life?
- Are weather patterns actually changing or does it just seem so?
- Do air pollutants cause cancer?
Jotting down questions such as these will help you discover a hook, an approach to the huge subject of environmental issues that enables you to define a workable topic for your essay.
Taking time to list these questions, even if you have been allotted only a certain amount of time to write the essay, is essential. The questions will focus your thinking and help you avoid the common trap of starting to write without a clear topic in mind.
Ask The 5 Ws
Another technique for developing a topic is to imagine that you are a reporter or a detective investigating the subject. Think about your favorite cop show on TV. How do the police go about investigating crimes? Or pick up any newspaper and analyze one or two stories carefully; near the beginning of any article, whether it's short or long, you will find the answers to the 5 W questions:
Practice 1: Asking The 5 W s
On a separate piece of paper, take three minutes and write out some 5 W questions prompted by the assignment to write about environmental issues in your community.
You may find yourself writing as many as ten W questions, or even more; they should keep popping into your mind. Just begin each question with one of the W words.
Once you've asked your 5 W questions, write out a possible essay topic that emerges from one or more of these W questions.
Using The 5 W Questions To Narrow A Topic
Let's assume that one of the questions you wrote down was the following:
- Who is doing the most to promote recycling?
That one question alone could be the topic of a whole essay, once you know the answer to your question.
- Here's another question you might have asked:
- Which kind of recycling is more useful—bottles or cans?
At first glance, that question might seem too narrow to support a whole essay, but in fact, it could easily become the topic for your essay once you have taken the next step in developing a topic: research.
Doing Your Research
If you are sitting in class and your teacher has given you 30 minutes to write an essay, of course you don't have time to do any outside research. But in most other cases, you are assigned an essay and given plenty of time to do some research.
Research can be a scary word, but all it really means is "gather some facts, opinions, and quotations from interested parties or authorities, and other items that provide the evidence you need to support your thesis statement." (We'll discuss developing your thesis in the next lesson.)
What Kind of Research Works Best?
Clever, imaginative, thoughtful research is what you should aim for. Your essay will improve in exact proportion to the quality of research that you do. Books, magazines, newspapers, and interviews are the obvious places to start. But you'll need to do a lot of narrowing before your research will start producing helpful results. For example, a search on Google for environmental issues produces 18,000,000 pages!
Just as narrowing your topic is essential to the development of a workable essay topic, research must be very carefully focused if it is to provide information and specific data to support your thesis. Your preliminary research will need to be very general of course. In the beginning, when you are deciding on a topic, you will be looking at the larger picture. Once you have decided on a topic, you will then be able to zoom in and focus your research on the specifics of the topic you have chosen.
Tips on Creative Research
- If you need help doing the research for your essay, go to your local library and ask for help. Librarians love to help people learn how to use a library.
- Try to organize an interview with at least one authority on your subject. This doesn't mean you need to get to your senator. You might want to interview the principal of your school, or the person in the mayor's office who oversees your city's recycling program. Get on the phone and ask—someone will say yes if you make a good case for why you want to meet the authority and how your interview will benefit the authority and you.
- Think creatively. If you have decided to write, for example, a comparison of the effectiveness of recycling bottles versus cans, why not try to interview the manager of the local soft drink distributor. He may have helpful information to offer.
- Provide your own data. If you don't have time to arrange interviews, and you can't find data easily to support your thesis, conduct your own small experiment. Weigh some bottles and cans, go to the local recycling center, and see what happens when you try to recycle your materials. You won't be solving the world's recycling problems, but you will have demonstrated how complicated the problems are that need solving.
Practice 2: Doing Creative Research
Imagine that you have decided to write an essay based on your question, Who is doing the most to promote recycling?
Take five minutes and create a minimum of three creative ideas for research on this topic.
In the next lesson, we'll explore ways to develop and refine your essay's thesis statement.
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