Friday, October 03, 2008

How to find a paper topic: general principles

This post is a call for collective wisdom. I'm not teaching this year, but a former student wrote to see if I had any general advice about choosing a topic for a paper. I told him that I'm not used to answering that question in the abstract; I usually talk about the process with specific references to an assignment I've given and the readings for a course I'm teaching. However, I like to attempt formulating useful advice that applies to contexts other than my own classroom, so I said I'd take a shot at my own answer and then put the question to you, my wise and delightful and, may I say, attractive readership. Let loose in the comments! My answer, below, has in mind an advanced undergraduate assignment in English, but you don't have to limit yourself to that case.

Here was my first shot at an answer:

1. This page from Purdue is a decent starting point. It basically takes the idea of a good thesis and works backwards to some tips on finding a topic.

2. In my humble opinion, however, that page might be too quick to tell the writer to rely on his or her own thoughts. Much of originality comes from borrowing, and as long as reading outside sources is not forbidden, I recommend doing some reading as early as possible in the process. Seeing what published critics have said about a text can be a good way to find out what issues and questions are settled and which ones still provoke useful exploration. I am not suggesting a full research process, just the idea that research and topic generation can happen simultaneously.

3. Finally, I think that at this early stage, decisiveness is good in itself. You can leave yourself room to change your mind, but lots of topics can create good papers if you devote a lot of time and creativity to the process, leaving yourself space to rethink your own ideas and have other people react to them. Picking a topic early, even if the choice involves a little bit of forced decisiveness, can focus your attention in useful ways. I learned this primarily by means of a graduate seminar outside of my field in which the professor made every student choose a play to write about almost immediately (before we had read most of them) and write a project proposal only a few weeks later. It felt crazy at first, but then we all had a solid couple of months to research and execute the papers, and that was fantastic. Sometimes it's worth forcing the issue.

5 comments:

Justin Wallace said...

When you're reading something you think you might end up writing on, be extra conscious of your personal reactions. I'd say 90% of the papers I wrote came in some way from a simple thought like "this reminds me of X" or "I don't like the way the author is using X thing to make Y point" or something of that nature. Once you get past the idea that you have to make some grandiose analysis and realize that the way you can contribute is by describing what you're thinking, the pressure of trying to "make" something gives way to the natural inclination to describe what you're thinking, in my experience.

seaswell said...

I used to be terrible at turning in papers on time in college. The reason was, I found out about three years too late, that I was writing papers for professors instead of for myself.

My advice is to make sure that you are passionate about the topic you pick - not that you think your teacher will like it, or that you think you'll be able to find a lot of good sources, or that it will be extra easy or extra difficult.

When I wrote papers I was passionate about, it actually made me want to write them - I enjoyed going to the library, I was willing to work harder, and I always ended up with something much more interesting and special to readers in general. Not only that, but your passion will shine through in your sentence-to-sentence writing. Only when I became a teacher myself did I see the glaring differences between passionate and passionless papers.

Slightly related to this idea is something that Erik taught us about picking a thesis - don't be afraid if it is a little weird. Having fun with papers makes them easier to write and easier to read (and easier to grade).

How do you find weird topics that you are passionate about? Read with a pencil in hand and be very conscious of your reactions to the text. Does something not seem to fit? Is there a commonly accepted idea about your subject that rubs you the wrong way each time you read it? Try to look deeper into the visceral reactions you have - if you "hate" something or are confused about something, try to pinpoint why. I used to think that if I was confused about something I read, I must not understand it, but that was a pretty low-self-esteem thing of me to think. Try to see your confusion as an opportunity to write a paper that explores that confusion and voices the questions you have - chances are you are on to something.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Seaswell.

You have to soulsearch to figure out what you actually care about, regarding the topic. What about it makes you excited, frustrated, angry or thrilled?

Of course, there's also the formula of connecting it to another text, the world (ie. current politics, etc.), or yourself.

Writer's block isn't a matter of lacking ideas-- it's a matter of not believing that what you have to say is worth saying or that others would want to hear it.

Finally, the other problem is that students want to say something innovative and new. Doing so is really almost impossible. So you have to keep reminding yourself that your goal is to make a contribution to the conversation, not to try to say something so brilliant nobody else has ever thought of anything like it before.

Carly said...

Above all, I agree with Sarah's comment (and the original idea proposed way back in tutorial) to pick a topic that is kind of out there. One of the biggest problems I had while writing papers was finding too great a volume of research materials. A broad paper topic is the kiss of death because you'll spend all your time wading through sheaves of paper or zillions of search results to find the ones that are actually written in intelligible English, and then you'll spend more hours trying to carve out a paper that seems to say something of value rather than just reiterating the text.

If you pick a weird, narrow topic to begin with, though, you can grow your research from that small sliver of a topic, and that has always worked much better for me. Despite the fact that I am a writer and writing is what makes me feel alive, I have never enjoyed writing a paper except the one I wrote diagnosing Frankenstein's monster with bipolar disorder. And that is a seriously weird topic. So if you're anything like me, you can give in to the fact that you'll probably never enjoy writing papers, but you can at least choose topics that will make the process bearable and not utter torture.

Jennie said...

Also, just being open. My archives seminar paper topic was picked due to an unlikely occurrence of Dan finally getting me to sit down and what The Lives of Others and then the next day, seeing an article in Wired about new technology piecing together Stassi files that were torn up by hand.