Choosing a Topic from Scratch

Choosing a topic can seem like a daunting task, because without a clear topic, it can feel impossible to start your assignment. You’ve probably asked yourself, where and how do I get started? What’s my first step? Well, this guide is for you! We’ve compiled the following steps to guide you through choosing a topic.

STEP 1: QUESTION

Take a few minutes and ask yourself the following questions. Write down any thoughts you have or ideas that come to mind. Circle or highlight important words or phrases on your assignment sheets, like the type of assignment or the category or theme of the assignment.

Understanding the Assignment

  • What is my assignment? Is there an assignment sheet I can reference?
  • Do I understand what’s asked of me? 
  • Do I know the assignment parameters (type of assignment, length requirements, etc.)?

Topic Thoughts

  • Have I been provided with a topic, or do I need to choose my own?
  • Is there an interesting topic we’ve been discussing in class that I can use?
  • Can I relate the assignment to my major or personal interests?
  • What “Big Ideas” exist in my major (e.g. fundamentals, ethics)

Example:

If I was assigned a problem-solution paper in WRT 150 that could be on any topic I choose, I’d make note that 1) my assignment is a problem-solution paper, 2)  the paper needs to be less than 5 pages long and is due at the end of the semester, and 3) even though I haven’t been provided with a specific topic, I know I need to write about a problem-solution and that I’m interested in nonprofit organizations. 

STEP 2: BRAINSTORMING

Brainstorming is the process by which ideas are produced using techniques like concept mapping or free-writing, and can be used to choose a topic or narrow down a broad topic. Now that you have some ideas or general topics from Step 1, use the 5 W’s and H list below to brainstorm specific details relating to your interests. 

Ask yourself the following questions when you have an idea in mind: 

  • WHO are the important / influential people involved with my topic? 
  • WHAT are some examples of this topic? 
  • WHEN – what time period(s) are appropriate to this topic? 
  • WHERE – is it tied to a specific country, state, city or geographic area?
  • HOW has this topic/idea/work influenced others?
  • WHY is this topic/idea important –to others, and to me?

Example:

Now that I have an idea of what a problem-solution paper is and that I’m interested in nonprofit organizations, I’ll go through the 5 W’s and H to get more specific. I’ll answer those questions while keeping nonprofit organizations in mind.

  • WHO – Volunteers are important
  • WHAT – I’ve volunteered for Kids Food Basket decorating lunch bags
  • WHEN – I want to focus on current problems
  • WHERE – I want to focus on West Michigan
  • HOW – Kids Food Basket brings food to school for children that need them.
  • WHY – I’ve volunteered for Kids Food Basket and have seen how important these meals are for kids in the community. 

These questions got me thinking… They also rely on volunteers to get food packaged. I wonder if they have problems getting volunteers? How does this affect their ability to get food packaged and delivered?

STEP 3: CHOOSING A TOPIC

It’s now time to choose a topic! Using the ideas you’ve generated in Steps 1 and 2, make a list of possible assignment topics or related ideas. Which ideas best relate to your assignment? Will you continue to find the topic(s) interesting throughout the next week, weeks, or semester? 

Example:

Based on the results from Steps 1 and 2, I was able to take my interest of nonprofit organizations and decided that I want to focus on volunteers at Kids Food Basket. The 5 W’s and H got my thinking about common problems at nonprofit organizations: 

  • Getting volunteers
  • Retaining volunteers
  • What happens when they don’t have enough volunteers?


Topic: For my WRT 150 problem-solution paper, I will write about the common problem nonprofit organizations face of getting and retaining volunteers and how this affects their mission. I will focus specifically on Kids Food Basket because I have personal experience from volunteering there. There are also a few people I can email/interview at that organization to get more information on solutions to this problem.

MEET WITH A CONSULTANT

Have other questions? Research consultants can help! We specialize in brainstorming topics, finding sources, reading scholarly materials, and evaluating research. 

Stop by the Knowledge Market during open hours or make an appointment to talk with a research consultant.

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