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Defining Your Essay Topic

Defining Your Essay Topic

Author: Martina Shabram

Recognize the importance of choosing an appropriate topic for specific writing tasks.

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Hello, students. My name is Dr. Martina Shabram. And I will be your instructor for today's lesson. I'm genuinely excited to teach you these concepts. So let's get started.

What are we going to learn today? Well, this lesson is about essay topics. And today, we're going to Goldilocks the subject, figuring out which essay topics are too broad, which are too narrow, and which ones are just right.

We've all had the experience-- you get your assignment, you're ready to write, but you have no clue what to focus on. Well, never again because we're going to practice selecting appropriate topics that meet your needs for any assignment. How do we know what an appropriate essay topic looks like?

Well, first, a topic is the controlling idea or focus of an essay or other writing project. And a great topic will set you up for a strong essay by being focused and rich, falling in the sweet spot between broad and narrow. Broad simply means too big. Narrow, too small. Now those sizes will depend somewhat on the assignment's parameters, its length, its focus, its purpose, et cetera.

But if you can spot broad and narrow topics, you can find your place between the two poles. Here are some hints. Too broad-- well, that will feature too much content, so much that you couldn't hope to possibly fit it all into one paper. You'll notice that broad topics lack specifics and won't immediately present with useful information.

Too narrow, on the other hand, won't feature enough content. And you'll be finished covering the whole topic way too soon. You'll notice that narrow topics are so specific that you really don't have enough to say to fill in a whole essay.

So before you commit to a topic, do some prewriting to see how much content you generate about a proposed topic. If you don't have much to say, you might have a topic that's too narrow. If you have too much, then you might have a topic that's too broad. Either way, you can expand or contract that topic as needed before you begin writing your essay.

So let's practice. What do you think of this essay topic? Where does it fall in the spectrum? I'd say that this is too broad. A good clue is that it seems like the title of a really long reference book. So I can tell that it's just too broad.

I mean, just think about what this topic demands. We need to start with the prehistory of dogs, when they were still wolves. Then we need to explain how wolves domesticated to become early dogs.

Would we be looking at that from a biological perspective or an anthropological one? The topic doesn't say, so we'd have to assume both? OK, then we'd need to discuss how dogs ended up all over the world and in hundreds of different breeds in different sizes.

Which breeds will we focus on? Where we end this history? What kinds of roles and jobs will we look at? Whoa, I'm getting exhausted just thinking about all this. This topic is just too broad.

But if we wanted to narrow it down, it might be wise to pick one of these questions and focus in more specifically on that one. So we could go from the history of dogs to dog breeds to dogs as pets to the difference between working dogs and pets. That's still a big topic. But it's much more focused than the whole history.

OK, let's look at the other one. Now where does this fall on the spectrum? We're at the other end, right. Now when we narrowed down from the history of dogs, we stopped before we got to a topic this specific. Well, that's one clue that this might be too narrow. But how else might you know? Well, let's just do a quick free write of what we need to discuss in this essay, like we did in the past topic.

All right, we need to consider what is the AKC, what are these recent additions that this topic is discussing, and, well, which ones have become popular in North America. That's it, right. Just three little points. Not too much to say.

So this shows not only how narrow this topic is, but how free writing or brainstorming about a topic can help you find if it's too narrow. So if we're going to broaden this, what could we change? Well, we could ask what the controversy or point-of-interest is. Why did we start with this topic in the first place?

Maybe the author is interested in how the AKC decides what breeds constitute a new addition. That might be a more interesting question that could point us towards a more appropriate topic. Maybe there's some debate over whether the AKC's rules are fair and inclusive. Maybe that's a good point of contact. So we could broaden this to debates about AKC policies for admitting new breeds.

Or we could go a whole other route. If this is too narrowly focused on, say, North America, we could broaden the scope to the whole world and think about an international perspective. Maybe there is an international counterpart to the AKC. So this topic could be international kennel club regulations and how they compare to the AKC. So either way, we're keeping the core interests the same but expanding the focus to include more issues.

So now in those two cases, the author got to choose a topic based solely on personal interest. But what happens when you get an assignment and have to work from that prompt? In many classes, this will be the case. So how do you choose a topic from an instructor's prompt?

Well, the first and possibly most important thing to do is to carefully read the assignment and ask any questions you might have. Once you know what you're meant to write-- all the assignments, expectations, and requirements-- then you could start from a strong place. So once you know that, you might take the prompt and do some prewriting. Try some of our games like clustering, listing, or free writing about the prompt and see if you find anything compelling or anything that sparks your interest.

Sometimes, the prompt will be a question. So try answering it in a few ways and see what happens. Other times, it'll be a more broad topic so you can practice narrowing to a precise one. And once you have an idea about how your beliefs and opinions fit within this topic, you can work on drafting a thesis statement. This should not merely restate the assignment's prompts in your own words. If you've done your work brainstorming, you should have a unique approach to the topic that reflects your interest.

So then you're ready to work through the stages of the writing process. As you draft, revise, and edit, think often about the connections to the prompt in order to catch yourself if you're veering off topic.

So let's practice. Here's a prompt. Where do we start? Well, we want to first check the assignment parameters, as those will tell us how to craft our topic. How long is this meant to be? One page. OK. So that says that this will be pretty brief and thus we'll want a fairly narrow topic.

This also instructs us specifically to think about a skill that will help ensure college success. So we know that this will be descriptive and informative. That tells us a lot.

So here are a couple options for topics. Read them and decide what you think about each. Which one do you think is the best topic? Yup, I agree. There it is. This topic is sufficiently focused on one element of writing. So the author of this paper will have enough detail to give, but not too much ground to cover.

Now what about this one? This-- oof-- too narrow, right. There's only one thing to explain-- what is the difference between a comma splice and the correct use of a comma. Not a lot of material to work with.

And this one-- way too broad. I mean, writing is a huge subject. Does this author mean the physical act of forming words with a pencil, or something more specific? We just don't know. And thus, this is too vague and unfocused to give us a clear path to a one-page paper.

So what did we learn today? Well, we introduced appropriate topics for essays, discussing how to assess which topics are too broad and which too narrow, how to broaden the narrow ones and narrow the broad ones, and how to find the best topic to fit the parameters of a writing assignment.

Well, students, I hope you had as much fun as I did. Thank you.

Terms to Know

The controlling idea or focus of an essay or other writing project.