Finding the right topic for your essay is always a daunting task even when you’re given a prompt by your teacher. I faced the difficulty of such a task once when I was taking an English 1A course at Berkeley City college. The assignment was to write a personal essay either about school and education or family. Trying to find the right topic for the assignment as well as following the instructions on writing a personal essay proved so insurmountable that I spent much of the night and early morning before the paper was due writing it.
Even now, when I look at the paper I wrote, which was about my grandfather’s death and funeral, I cringe. Not exactly my favorite piece of writing. Whether it’s writing a personal essay or a critical analysis of an assigned book or article, finding the right topic for your essay will always be difficult, especially if you don’t know what your precise opinions or ideas on the piece are. But it doesn’t need to be as long as you do a lot of preparations beforehand.
As I stated before, teachers will often provide a list of topics on which to write your paper. Sometimes, they can be vague prompts, such as the example I gave of my own essay-writing experience, or they can be quite detailed in terms of what the instructor is looking for on the topic. If your teacher gives you detailed prompts, then finding a topic that works best for you should be easy. Ask yourself: which topic on the list provided interests you the most? It’s important to always choose a topic you are interested in. Writing on a subject that you have little to no affinity toward will always be a sure recipe for essay doom. After all, essays are declarative statements that you believe in, ones that state your opinion or argue points that you feel most passionate about. If you spend five or ten pages arguing about something you have no feeling toward or no sense of authority about, then your reader (in this case, your teacher) will not be convinced at all by the arguments you put forth. So pick a prompt that works best for you or comes closest to ideas that you already have regarding the subject.
The topic that holds the most interest in you as a writer, of course, is determined by how much you have to say about the topic. This is where preparation toward the writing comes into play. Prior to writing, it’s important to take notes on the material you’ll be writing about. Underline passages in your reading material or take notes on visual material on any impression that you might have on it or to clarify what the author is trying to convey in the passage. Taking notes is a great way to not only understand the material, but give you the material you need in order to write about the subject. They will also help you remember your exact thoughts on the reading assignments, especially if enough time has passed between your reading the material and writing about it later on during the semester. Also, pay attention to class discussions. I often find that a lot of ideas I have are crystallized during class discussions. Usually, the instructor will offer essay prompts based on class discussions, so you’ll have a better idea of what you want to write about through these discussions and the ideas they help form in understanding the material.
If your teacher gives you a vague essay prompt, the best way to find out what topic you want to write about is brainstorming. I often brainstorm for essay ideas even when I do have a general idea of what I want to write about. Brainstorming is a great way of exploring ideas and thoughts for an essay. Another way to come up with topic ideas is free writing. Free writing is simply stream-of-consciousness writing in which ideas or memories are seemingly disassociated but follow a stream of thought in much the same way the mind travels from one stream of thought to the next. Usually, when you free yourself up from the pressure of trying to find the right topic and just simply write, you come up with ideas organically. Let’s say your teacher assigns you to write a personal essay about school or education. Take out a piece of paper and start free writing. Write whatever comes to your mind about your experiences in school. Don’t think about whether it makes sense or not. Just write. Once you’ve written an entire page, look over what you’ve written. Is there anything there that might sound like an idea or memory that could be expanded upon? If so, take that memory and brainstorm it. See what other memories or ideas are jogged through brainstorming. Continue doing this until you have a memory or experience that you can write about in a full, structured essay.
Choosing an essay topic is a personal thing: even when students choose the same topics, they write from a point of view that is uniquely their own. So, before determining which topic you want to write about, be sure to ask yourself whether or not this is something that you’re really interested in and whether you have a unique and compelling voice on the topic. Your essay should be an extension of your views on the world, so make sure that it is about something you care about and that it is something of which you have a great deal to say.