Often your subject will be determined by your teacher, your employer, or the writing context itself. Other times you may be free to choose your own subject. Either way, the subject itself is only a starting point, which won't make or break your paper.
Many unreadable papers have been written on exciting and important subjects, and many valuable papers have been done on subjects that at first glance look dull and insignificant. Whether you're given a subject or choose your own, whether you like your subject or not, your job is to turn that subject into a solid, well-organized paper, and the following process can help. How you handle your subject counts most.
... the subject itself is only a starting point, which won't make or break your paper.
Think of your subject as pointing you in a direction, providing boundaries you should stay within, telling you in a general way where you're going, and at the same time where you're not going. If your subject is California, you may or may not get to San Francisco, but you definitely won't get to the Statue of Liberty.
Similarly, if you're asked to write a report on the waste treatment facilities at your workplace, you've been given a subject that points you in one direction of thinking and eliminates others-customer relations, employee pension plans-from consideration for the time being. They're outside the boundaries of your subject and are therefore irrelevant. Such focusing of attention is vital, to provide a more definite sense of direction and purpose than the broad subject can offer.
Doing that, narrowing your subject's boundaries, often makes the difference between a strikingly effective paper and a bland, ineffective one. Look for ways to restrict the territory you'll be covering. Limit your broad subject to a smaller and more manageable topic.
Look for ways to restrict the territory you'll be covering. Limit your broad subject to a smaller and more manageable topic.
A topic, as we're using the term here, is an area much like a subject but more definite, more specific. Usually the topic will be some particular aspect of the subject that you're most interested in or know the most about, the part your knowledge, experience, and interests make you feel closest to. The subject of California, for instance, might be narrowed to the topic of San Francisco or Monterey.
The topic of San Francisco might then be narrowed even further to the San Francisco earthquake of 1895.
Each narrowing tightens your focus and increases the chance for a unified, coherent essay.
6.1 Write freely for ten or fifteen minutes. Stick with one general subject, but allow yourself to wander freely within those limits. Jot down what ever you already know about the subject or what you'd like to know. Write out your immediate personal reactions to the subject, your thoughts and feelings. Don't write what you think you're expected to feel, but what you do feel. Try to establish an authentic personal relationship to the subject. Try to get at whatever you find exciting, troubling, offensive, or useful.
When you finish, read back over your freewrite and complete the following sentence:
What most interests me about this subject is ...
Do Some Investigation
Your investigation could take many forms. Some topics may require little. Your existing knowledge and experience may be adequate for a paper on "what makes a successful high school basketball coach." Maybe you've known and played for a few successful coaches and are currently preparing to become one. If so, you can draw upon your existing knowledge.
Your investigation may involve some note-taking and library work, but still not assume the discipline and scope of a formal research paper.
On the other hand, maybe the process of narrowing your subject has led you to an area where you don't feel well informed. If you're going to write about this topic, you'll need to do some reading, maybe even some phone calling and interviewing. If you aren't sure where to begin, check the suggestions in Outside Sources.
Your investigation may involve some note-taking and library work, but still not assume the discipline and scope of a formal research paper. Investigating the current condition of your city's bus system might require taking a bus ride and talking to some regular passengers and drivers. It might involve checking routes and timetables to look for areas of the city that are over or under served. You could ask the same question--Why does only one bus cover the whole north side of town?--to three or four different people. Certainly you'd want to learn something about the buses themselves: How old are they? How much does it cost to service them? How often are they replaced? Much of this information can be obtained from informal discussions, interviews, and direct observation.
6.2 Write a short paragraph explaining how you'd investigate each of the following topics:
a. Your county's use of alternative sentencing for non-violent criminals.
b. The present condition of the job market for college graduates with degrees in graphic design, or in your major field.
c. How recycling has affected waste management in your community during the past five years.
When you finish, exchange your paragraphs with a partner and discuss the similarities and differences in your approaches.
6.3 Narrow each of the following subject areas into a more definite topic. When you finish, select one topic and investigate it.
a. credit buying
b. physical fitness
d. substance abuse