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Defining Your Essay Topic

Defining Your Essay Topic

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Determine whether a topic is appropriate for the scope of an assignment.

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what's covered
In this lesson, you will learn how to figure out which essay topics are too broad, which are too narrow, and which are just right for the scope of an assignment. Specifically, this lesson will cover:
  1. Defining Topic Scope
    1. Overly Broad Topics
    2. Overly Narrow Topics
  2. Determining a Topic from a Prompt

1. Defining Topic Scope

First, it’s important to know that a topic is the controlling idea or focus of an essay or other writing project. 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 means too small. The specifics of those sizes will depend somewhat on the assignment’s parameters, its length, its focus, its purpose, etc.

However, if you can spot broad and narrow topics, you can find your place between the two poles. 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.

1a. Overly Broad Topics

A topic that is too broad 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 the reader with useful information.

try it
Look at the following essay topic, and see if you can decide where it falls on the spectrum: The history of dogs.

A good clue is that it seems like the title of a really long reference book; you can thus tell that it’s just too broad. Think about what this topic demands. You’d need to start with the prehistory of dogs, when they were still wolves. Then you’d need to explain how wolves were domesticated to become early dogs.
Would you be looking at that from a biological perspective or an anthropological one? The topic doesn’t say, so you’d have to assume both. Then you’d need to discuss how dogs ended up all over the world and in hundreds of different breeds in different sizes. Which breeds would you focus on? Where would you end this history? What kinds of roles and jobs of dogs would you look at? Again, this topic is just too broad.
But if you wanted to narrow it down, it might be wise to pick one of these questions and focus in on it more specifically. You 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.

1b. Overly Narrow Topics

Conversely, a topic that is too narrow won’t feature enough content; 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.

try it
Look at the following essay topic, and see if you can decide where it falls on the spectrum: Recent additions to the American Kennel Club breed list that have become popular in North America.

This is at the other end. When you narrowed down from the history of dogs, you stopped before you got to a topic this specific. That’s one clue that this might be too narrow. But how else might you know? Imagine doing a quick brainstorm of what you’d need to discuss in this essay.
You'd need to consider what the American Kennel Club is, what these recent breed additions are, and which ones have become popular in North America. That’s just three little points; there’s not too much to say. This shows not only how narrow this topic is, but also how brainstorming about a topic can help you find out if it’s too narrow.
If you were going to broaden this topic, you could ask what the controversy or point of interest is. Why did you start with this topic in the first place? Maybe you’re interested in how the American Kennel Club decides which breeds constitute a new addition. That might be a more interesting question that could point you towards an appropriate topic.
Or maybe there’s some debate over whether the American Kennel Club’s rules are fair and inclusive. That might be a good point of conflict that could broaden this to debates about American Kennel Club policies for admitting new breeds.
Or you could go another route. If this is too narrowly focused on North America, you could broaden the scope to the whole world and think about an international perspective. Maybe there is an international counterpart to the American Kennel Club. The topic could then be international kennel club regulations and how they compare to the American Kennel Club.
Either way, you’d be keeping the core interests of the topic the same, but expanding the focus to include more issues.

2. Determining a Topic from a Prompt

Sometimes you may get to choose a topic based solely on personal interest; however, in many cases, you will get an assignment and have to work from that prompt.

There are thus some specific steps you can take to ensure you still pick an appropriate topic when given a prompt.

step by step
  1. When choosing a topic from an instructor’s prompt, the first and possibly most important thing to do is carefully read the assignment and ask any questions you might have.
  2. Once you know what you’re meant to write - all the assignment's expectations and requirements - then you can start from a strong place. You might take the prompt and do some prewriting about the prompt to see if you find anything compelling or anything that sparks your interest.
  3. After that, 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.

Sometimes, the prompt will be a question. In those cases, the prewriting stage would be a good time to try answering it in a few ways and seeing what happens. Other times, the prompt will be a broader topic, so you can practice narrowing it to a precise one.

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.


Consider the following prompt: Write a one-page essay describing a skill necessary for college success.

To decide on a topic, you’d first check the assignment parameters, as those will tell you how to craft your topic. How long is this meant to be? One page. That says that this will be pretty brief, and you’ll thus want a fairly narrow topic.

This prompt also specifically instructs you to think about a skill that will help ensure college success. Therefore, you know that this assignment will be descriptive and informative.

try it
Here are a few options for topics based on the prompt discussed above. Read them and decide which one you think is best.

  1. Writing
  2. Distinguishing between a comma splice and correct comma use among two clauses
  3. Understanding the different modes of writing
Based on what you’ve learned so far, you can probably tell that this is the best choice: Understanding the different modes of writing. 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.
This one is too narrow: Distinguishing between a comma splice and correct comma use among two clauses. There’s only one thing to explain— the difference between a comma splice and the correct use of a comma in a sentence with two clauses. That’s not a lot of material to work with.
And this one is way too broad: Writing. Writing is a huge subject. Does this refer to the physical act of forming words with a pencil, or something more specific? You just don’t know; this is too vague and unfocused to give you a clear path to a one-page paper.

In this lesson, you learned about the importance of defining the scope of an essay topic. When you’re writing, you want to make sure that your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow. You can narrow down overly broad topics by choosing a specific question to focus on; you can broaden overly narrow topics by considering other related aspects that might interest you.

You also learned how to determine a topic from a prompt, which is a specific assignment that your instructor may give you. It’s important to return to the prompt throughout the writing process to ensure that you are meeting the parameters of the assignment.

Best of luck in your learning!