Choosing a topic is actually the number one goal when starting to write a term paper: your chief aim is to refine your topic, to sharpen and delimit your main question.
You should start distilling and reshaping your term paper topic as early as possible, even though you will continue to do so as you research and write. It’s not something you do once at the beginning and then put behind you. Honing your topic is vital to producing a A-grade term paper, and you should keep doing it throughout the course. The question is, how exactly do you refine your topic? You begin by understanding what makes a term paper topic manageable.
Some topics, no matter how significant and interesting, are simply too big and amorphous to study well. You can’t get your arms around them. You will never really master them, and it’s very hard to write a coherent term paper that truly does them justice. That leads to an important point: You need to figure out how to move from a compelling general idea to a sharply focused topic, one you can research and analyze within the time available.
- Tip: Refining your term paper topic is the top priority when starting to write. The goal is to move from a general topic to a sharply focused one that you can manage.
What Makes a Term Paper Topic Successful and Manageable?
A successful term paper poses an interesting question you can actually answer. Just as important, it poses a question you can answer within the time available.
The question should be one that interests you and deserves exploration. It might be an empirical question or a theoretical puzzle. In some fields, it might be a practical problem or policy issue.
Whatever the question is, you need to mark off its boundaries clearly and intelligently so you can complete the term paper and not get lost in the woods. That means your topic should be manageable as well as interesting and important.
A term paper topic is manageable if you can:
- Master the relevant literature
- Collect and analyze the necessary data
- Answer the key questions you have posed
- Do it all within the time available, with the skills you have
A term paper topic is important if it:
- Touches directly on major theoretical issues and debates, or
- Addresses substantive topics of great interest in your field
Ideally, your topic can do both, engaging theoretical and substantive issues. In elementary education, for example, parents, teachers, scholars, and public officials all debate the effectiveness of charter schools, the impact of vouchers, and the value of different reading programs. A term paper on any of these would resonate within the university and well beyond it. Still, as you approach such topics, you need to limit the scope of your investigation so you can finish your research and writing on time. After all, to be a good term paper, it first has to be a completed one.
- Tip: A successful term paper poses an interesting question you can actually answer within the time available for the project.
Some problems are simply too grand, too sweeping to master within the time limits. Some are too minor to interest you or anybody else. This is a Goldilocks problem: you need to find a happy medium.
The solution, however, is not to find a lukewarm bowl of porridge, a bland compromise. Nor is it to abandon your interest in larger, more profound issues such as the relationship between school organization and educational achievement or between immigration and poverty.
Rather, the solution is to select a well-defined term paper topic that is closely linked to some larger issue and then explore that link. Your term paper will succeed if you nail a well-defined topic. It will rise to excellence if you probe that topic deeply and show how it illuminates wider issues.
- Tip: The best theses deal with important issues, framed in manageable ways. The goal is to select a well-defined topic that is closely linked to some larger issue and can illuminate it.
You can begin your term paper with either a large issue or a narrowly defined topic, depending on your interests and the ideas you have generated. Whichever way you start, the goals are the same: to connect the two in meaningful ways and to explore your specific topic in depth.
How to Move from a Term Paper Idea to a Topic
Let’s begin as most students actually do, by going from a “big issue” to a more manageable term paper topic. Suppose you start with a big question such as, “Why has the United States fought so many wars since 1945?” That’s certainly a big, important question. Unfortunately, it’s too complex and sprawling to cover well in a term paper. Working with your professor or adviser, you could zero in on a related but feasible research topic, such as “Why did the Johnson administration choose to escalate the U.S. war in Vietnam?” By choosing this topic, your term paper can focus on a specific war and, within that, on a few crucial years in the mid-1960s.
You can draw on major works covering all aspects of the Vietnam War and the Johnson administration’s decision making. You have access to policy memos that were once stamped top secret. These primary documents have now been declassified, published by the State Department, and made available to research libraries. Many are readily available on the Web. You can also take advantage of top-quality secondary sources (that is, books and articles based on primary documents, interviews, and other research data).
Drawing on these primary and secondary sources, you can uncover and critique the reasons behind U.S. military escalation. As you answer this well-defined question about Vietnam, you can (and you should) return to the larger themes that interest you, namely, “What does the escalation in Southeast Asia tell us about the global projection of U.S. military power since 1945?” As one of America’s largest military engagements since World War II, the war in Vietnam should tell us a great deal about the more general question.
The goal here is to pick a good case to study, one that is compelling in its own right and speaks to the larger issue. It need not be a typical example, but it does need to illuminate the larger question. Some cases are better than others precisely because they illuminate larger issues. That’s why choosing the best cases makes such a difference in your term paper.
Since you are interested in why the United States has fought so often since 1945, you probably shouldn’t focus on U.S. invasions of Grenada, Haiti, or Panama in the past two decades. Why? Because the United States has launched numerous military actions against small, weak states in the Caribbean for more than a century. That is important in its own right, but it doesn’t say much about what has changed so dramatically since 1945. The real change since 1945 is the projection of U.S. power far beyond the Western Hemisphere, to Europe and Asia. You cannot explain this change—or any change, for that matter—by looking at something that remains constant.
In this case, to analyze the larger pattern of U.S. war fighting and the shift it represents, you need to pick examples of distant conflicts, such as Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq. That’s the noteworthy change since 1945: U.S. military intervention outside the Western Hemisphere. The United States has fought frequently in such areas since World War II but rarely before then. Alternatively, you could use statistics covering many cases of U.S. intervention around the world, perhaps supplemented with some telling cases studies.
Students in the humanities want to explore their own big ideas, and they, too, need to focus their research. In English literature, their big issue might be “masculinity” or, to narrow the range a bit, “masculinity in Jewish American literature.” Important as these issues are, they are too vast for anyone to read all the major novels plus all the relevant criticism and then frame a comprehensive term paper.
If you don’t narrow these sprawling topics and focus your work, you can only skim the surface. Skimming the surface is not what you want to do in a term paper. You want to understand your subject in depth and convey that understanding to your readers.
That does not mean you have to abandon your interest in major themes. It means you have to restrict their scope in sensible ways. To do that, you need to think about which aspects of masculinity really interest you and then find works that deal with them.
You may realize your central concern is how masculinity is defined in response to strong women. That focus would still leave you considerable flexibility, depending on your academic background and what you love to read. That might be anything from a reconsideration of Macbeth to an analysis of early twentieth-century American novels, where men must cope with women in assertive new roles. Perhaps you are interested in another aspect of masculinity: the different ways it is defined within the same culture at the same moment. That would lead you to novelists who explore these differences in their characters, perhaps contrasting men who come from different backgrounds, work in different jobs, or simply differ emotionally. Again, you would have considerable flexibility in choosing specific writers.
- Tip: The goal is not just to narrow your topic. The goal is to narrow it the right way—so your inquiry still matters, so it still offers real insights into larger issues.
However you refine and narrow your term paper topic, your goals are the same: to make the topic more manageable while still giving yourself the opportunity to explore broad issues that intrigue you.
How to Connect a Specific Term Paper Topic to a Bigger Idea
Not all students begin their term paper concerned with big issues such as masculinity or American wars over the past half century. Some start with very specific topics in mind. One example might be the decision to create NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement encompassing Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Perhaps you are interested in NAFTA because you discussed it in a course, heard about it in a political campaign, or saw its effects firsthand on local workers, companies, and consumers. It intrigues you, and you would like to study it in a term paper. The challenge is to go from this clear-cut subject to a larger theme that will frame your paper.
Why do you even need to figure out a larger theme? Because NAFTA bears on several major topics, and you cannot explore all of them. Your challenge—and your opportunity—is to figure out which one captures your imagination.
One way to think about that is to finish this sentence: “For me, NAFTA is a case of ___________.” If you are mainly interested in negotiations between big and small countries, then your answer is, “For me, NAFTA is a case of a large country like the United States bargaining with a smaller neighbor.” Your answer would be different if you are mainly interested in decision making within the United States, Mexico, or Canada. In that case, you might say, “NAFTA seems to be a case where a strong U.S. president pushed a trade policy through Congress.” Perhaps you are more concerned with the role played by business lobbies. “For me, NAFTA is a case of undue corporate influence over foreign economic policy.” Or you could be interested in the role of trade unions, environmental groups, or public opinion.
The NAFTA decision is related to all these big issues and more. You cannot cover them all. There is not enough time, and even if there were, the resulting paper would be too diffuse, too scatter-shot. To make an impact, throw a rock, not a handful of pebbles.
Choosing one of these large issues will shape your term paper on NAFTA. If you are interested in U.S. decision making, for example, you might study the lobbying process or perhaps the differences between Democrats and Republicans. If you are interested in diplomacy, you would focus on negotiations between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Either would make an interesting term paper, but they are different topics.
Although the subject matter and analysis are decidedly different in the humanities, many of the same considerations still apply to topic selection. In English or comparative literature, for example, you may be attracted to a very specific topic such as several poems by William Wordsworth. You are not trying, as a social scientist would, to test some generalizations that apply across time or space. Rather, you want to analyze these specific poems, uncover their multiple meanings, trace their allusions, and understand their form and beauty.
As part of the term paper, however, you may wish to say something bigger, something that goes beyond these particular poems. That might be about Wordsworth’s larger body of work. Are these poems representative or unusual? Do they break with his previous work or anticipate work yet to come? You may wish to comment on Wordsworth’s close ties to his fellow “Lake Poets,” Coleridge and Southey, underscoring some similarities in their work. Do they use language in shared ways? Do they use similar metaphors or explore similar themes? You may even wish to show how these particular poems are properly understood as part of the wider Romantic movement in literature and the arts. Any of these would connect the specific poems to larger themes.
In both the Wordsworth and NAFTA examples, you begin with an interest in a quite specific topic and ultimately link it to larger issues. But the process could just as easily be reversed. You might initially start with an interest in economic integration and whittle it down to NAFTA. Or you might come with a general interest in Romantic poets and decide to write your term paper on some specific works by Wordsworth or Coleridge.
- Tip: If you begin with a well-defined topic, then look for some connections to larger themes. That’s not only important for your conclusions; it will direct your whole approach to the topic, highlighting some aspects instead of others.
You can start with either a big issue or a narrow topic. Either way is fine. An A-grade term paper will eventually make some connections between the two, between a well-defined topic and a more encompassing idea.
How to Refine Your Term Paper Topic
One of your professor’s or adviser’s most valuable contributions to the success of your term paper is to help you refine your topic. She can help you select the best cases for detailed study or the best data and statistical techniques. S/he can help you find cases that shed light on larger questions, have good data available, and are discussed in a rich secondary literature. She may know valuable troves of documents to explore. That’s why it is so important to bring these issues up in early meetings. These discussions with your adviser are crucial in moving from a big but ill-defined idea to a smart, feasible topic.
- Tip: Begin sharpening your question and refining your term paper topic early in the project. Your adviser can play a vital role in this crucial early stage.
Some colleges supplement this advising process by offering special workshops and tutorial support for students. These are great resources, and you should take full advantage of them. They can improve your project in at least three ways.
First, tutors and workshop leaders are usually quite adept at helping you focus and shape your topic. That’s what they do best. Even if they are relatively new teachers, they have been writing term papers themselves for many years. They know how to do it well and how to avoid common mistakes. To craft their own papers, they have learned how to narrow their topics, gather data, interpret sources, and evaluate conjectures. They know how to use appropriate methods and how to mine the academic literature. In all these ways, they can assist you with their own hard-won experience. To avoid any confusion, just make sure your main faculty adviser knows what advice you are getting from workshop leaders and tutors. You want everyone to be pulling in the same direction.
Second, you will benefit enormously from batting around your term paper in workshops. The more you speak about your subject, the better you will understand it yourself. The better you understand it, the clearer your research and writing will be. You will learn about your project as you present your ideas; you will learn more as you listen to others discuss your work; and you will learn still more as you respond to their suggestions. Although you should do that in sessions with your adviser, you will also profit from doing it in workshops and tutorial sessions.
Third, workshops, tutors, and other readers remind you that you are writing for an audience. This is a vital lesson for all term paper writers. Others will read your work, and it should be directed toward them. (By the way, in good workshops, students read each others’ work and take it seriously. That’s probably what differentiates them from mediocre workshops, where students don’t bother to read each others’ work, so they cannot provide helpful, informed comments.)
- Tip: Take full advantage of thesis workshops to get feedback on your term paper. They offer:
- Evaluations from skilled workshop leaders
- Opportunities for you to discuss your project
- Comments from fellow students about your work
- A constant reminder that you must convey your ideas to others
If you want to imagine a good target audience, think about juniors and seniors in your major and intelligent lay people who are not specialists in your area. Of course, some topics go beyond the technical expertise of ordinary educated readers. If that’s true for your topic, then focus on an audience of fellow term paper writers in your class.