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How to write a paper: Selecting a topic

Updated on September 8, 2011

Whether writing for history, science, English, or any of a number of subjects, the first step you need to take is topic selection. The topic of your paper carries a great deal of importance--it will determine everything to follow, from organization to strength of argument and even the length of the paper. Choosing an effective and appropriate topic is vital to your efforts, so put some care into it.

In grade school, your teachers probably taught you about facts and opinions. An opinion is a statement that changes from person to person without being untrue.

My favorite color is blue. Your favorite color is purple.

There is no "correct" favorite color, so these both count as opinions. A fact, on the other hand, might change from person to person, but if it does, one person will likely be wrong.

All the planets revolve around the sun. The sun and all the planets revolve around the earth.

Someone may potentially believe the latter statement, but they would be wrong.

Now, you may have heard conversations that sound like this: "Aliens are among us, eviscerating cattle and abducting humans!" "That's just your opinion."

No, it's not an opinion. The first person may believe what he says, and the second person may not have evidence to refute him, but that doesn't change the fact that either aliens abduct humans or they do not abduct humans. Because of this, I like to add a third category, a grey zone between fact and opinion: unsubstantiated facts.

When you select a topic, select an unsubstantiated fact. In order to write a good paper, you actually need to write about something that could be wrong. If you lean towards opinions, no one will care what you have to say. If you lean toward solid facts, you may as well not write at all.

"Grass is green." "Big whoop. Who cares?"

The gray area of unsubstantiated facts will never lack of topics, things that may be true but people have yet to prove. Medical practitioners need to convince their colleagues that a new technique works better than an old one. Historians may uncover evidence that suggests a Confederate general was leaking information to the Union army. An English professor might want to convince the literary world that Odysseus was actually Helen of Troy in drag.

Note this well: If someone can't argue against your topic, you may want to write about something else.

Also note this: you can argue against anything. Absolutely anything. You just need to be intelligent enough to refute a claim.

"The grass is green."

"But how do you define green? One source defines green as the color the eye discerns at a light frequency of 5.94*10^14 hz, while that grass actually reflects light at 5.94*10^14."

Go back to my astronomy statement. If I had said, "The sun revolves around the earth," most people would laugh, but I could respond, "But gravity acts between two objects equally, so technically they both revolve around each other, and my statement is true."

You can argue against any fact, no matter how obviously true it may be. I don't advise that, however. Pick a topic in the grey area--not widely believed, but not completely opinion. Here's an example:

Evidence shows that the thirteen-striped ground squirrel of southern Minnesota is the same species as the fourteen-striped squirrel of the southwestern United States.

One scientist might make that claim, while another may argue:

The genes that cause the fourteenth stripe in southwestern squirrels are different enough from Minnesota squirrels to define them as a different species.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you want to prove a topic, you should probably start by thinking of arguments against it. You can create supporting arguments later.

One Final Note: You haven't chosen a proper topic until you fulfill all three of these steps: select a topic that can be argued, write a paper supporting your topic, then go back to the beginning to change the topic to reflect what you actually wrote about.

We all do it. You never really know what you're going to write about until the paper is done. I recommend looking back at your paper, seeing how far you strayed from your original point, and instead of re-writing the paper, just change the thesis. You probably proved something. Figure out what all your supporting statements have in common, and you've found the perfect topic.

Good luck.


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    • kerlynb profile image

      kerlynb 6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      "If someone can't argue against your topic, you may want to write about something else." - A piece of advice I should have gotten from the start. Makes sense. If a topic is too "safe", then it may turn out to be irrelevant to people, uninteresting, or plain useless:(