Choosing a Research Paper Topic

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  • Choose a topic that interests you.
  • Pick a topic that you can find enough information about.
  • Use the topic to frame the structure of your paper.

Teachers typically assign papers in two different ways:

  1. The teacher will give you one topic to write about.

    Or, they’ll give you a couple of options and have you choose one. The topics will usually use trigger words like:


    …the relative powers of the Ancient cultures of Rome and Egypt.


    …the effectiveness of Napoleon’s military campaign.


    …how Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is social and political commentary.


    …how Henry Ford’s innovations in the automotive industry revolutionized manufacturing.


    The key words–in these examples, compare, evaluate, describe, and discuss–give you information about the type of essay your teacher is expecting. They help you frame your research and analysis.


    If, for example, your writing prompt is the one beginning with the word “compare,” your essay will contain two main parts juxtaposed against one another.


    Your teacher will be expecting your essay to contain information about the power of Ancient Rome, the power of Ancient Egypt, and a comparison between the two.

    Tip: Thinking about the key word in your prompt is important because it provides a clue as to how your paper will be structured!


  2. You get to choose your topic.

    In this case, think of a topic that you are interested in and can find enough information about. Make sure that it’s specific. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin by by choosing a topic that is too broad.

    Still struggling to come up with a topic? Maybe this example will help: Let’s say your teacher gives you free reign to write any essay about Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but you didn’t enjoy the book. That’s OK. Try thinking about the following:

    • What did the teacher talk about in class? It’s likely that she’s looking for an essay that builds on what she discussed. Maybe the teacher spoke a lot about symbolism in the book. Perhaps the use of symbolism in Jane Eyre would make a good topic.
    • Were you interested in any part of the book? OK, maybe the mushy love scenes weren’t the most exciting, but Edward’s crazy wife is a cool character. Maybe I could write an essay about how her addition to the story intensified the plot.


Once you’ve zeroed in on your topic, think about what you want your paper to accomplish. A good paper has direction and precisely addresses the topic. You should be able to fill in the blanks: “After reading my paper, the reader should know______. I think my essay will discuss_____.”

At this point, you haven’t done the research to know the intricacies of the arguments that will be in your finished essay. We’re still in the early stages of your paper-writing. However, you should have a good idea where you paper’s going. For example, if your prompt was, “Discuss the reasons why King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church,” your first sentence may look something like:

After reading my paper, the reader should know the most important reasons why King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church.

If possible, have a follow up sentence–where you think your research is going:

I think that my essay will discuss the social, political, religious, and cultural reasons.

Don’t be afraid if you don’t know exactly where your paper’s headed. This step just helps you frame your research to make your paper more directed.

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