Have you ever been stressed out because you can’t think of a good topic for an important writing assignment? You’re not alone. As a student, you’d probably prefer it if professors would just assign topics rather than leave you to find one on your own. However, professors aren’t vague because they want to punish you; they usually just don’t want to constrain your creativity or discourage you from writing about topics that truly interest you. Professors also want to be surprised by their students’ ingenuity, and very few teachers want to read a big stack of essays all on the same stale topic. Unfortunately, just being told to “be creative” is unlikely to calm you down when you’ve got a major paper due next week and still haven’t found a topic to write about!
Imagine that you are in an introductory literature course. The professor has assigned a 3-5 page essay on a Shakespearean play that requires multiple sources. You try asking the professor to be more specific, or offer some suggestions. The professor responds, “No, it’s up to you. Surprise me.” What do you do?
One smart option is to go to the library and look for scholarly journals that cover Shakespearean studies. You might also try scholarly books about Shakespeare and his plays. Browsing these sources should give you some ideas about the aspects of Shakespeare and his plays, that scholars have found worth writing about. You might find that an idea that you thought was “totally original” has already been done. However, you shouldn’t let this worry you. If every essay or book had to be 100% original, we’d have precious few to read!
If you keep reading and skimming articles and books, you’ll find many different discussions and possibilities for writing topics. Scholars frequently engage in complex and long-lasting arguments that span across different journal articles and books. Professor X’s article on climate change will be mentioned, discussed, or challenged by Professor Y in a book and Professor Z in another article. None of them are worried about saying things that have never been said before; the key is just to say them differently and perhaps better.
You will always have one advantage over any other scholar you read–their articles and books cannot take advantage of all the relevant scholarship that appeared after their publication date. Don’t be afraid to freshen up an old article with new supporting evidence–or challenge one whose conclusions are called into question by subsequent research.
You should also look for an issue that you can reasonably cover given the time and space (page count) you have available. After that it’s a simple matter of supporting your argument by bringing in relevant quotations from those who agree with you. You should also identify the counter-arguments and provide pertinent background information.
This technique also works well for writing theses and dissertations. Instead of writing about “things never written about before,” try to make a new contribution to one of the many ongoing conversations in the field.