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Develop a topic & thesis

Who is this guide for?

We think this guide will be most useful to first- and second-year students.

1. Understanding your assignment

We know this is an obvious first step, but here are a few questions to ask yourself as you read through the assignment:

  • How much choice do you have in choosing your topic? Does your professor want you to choose from a list of existing topics or do you have the freedom to write about what you'd like?

  • What does your professor want you to do with your topic? Look for "action" words like compare, contrast, evaluate, analyze, etc.

  • Does your professor require you to use resources other than your course readings? Do they have requirements about what kind of resources you should use (ex. 5 scholarly journal articles)?

  • Is there anything in the assignment you don't understand? If so, ask your professor about it. You never know - half your class might have the same question!

2. Coming Up With Ideas

  • Start by thinking about what you've learned in this class so far - look over your notes, chat with your classmates about lectures, etc.

  • Visit the Writing Center - their tutors can help you brainstorm!

  • Take what you know a step further by organizing that knowledge in a structure that makes sense to you. This could be something like an outline or a concept map. This process may help you see new connections between topics.

  • Is there something you're passionate about? Something you're confused by? Something you want to know more about? These can all be good questions to ask, in order to help you find a topic you're actually interested in. 

As you come up with ideas, make note of what seems important or interesting to you! You may want to do a bit of "pre-research" (look at Wikipedia or library resources) to see if there's enough there for your assignment.

3. Narrowing It Down

Ask Questions

If you have a broad topic, here are a few questions you can ask to help break it down. You don't have to answer all of these questions in one paper!

  • Who? (It may help to focus on groups of people - ex. astronauts.)

    • Who was involved? How?
    • Who was affected? How?
    • Who benefited? How?
    • Who paid for it?
  • What?

    • What problems were solved? How?
    • What problems still exist? What solutions have been tried?
    • What were the effects? On who? On what (ex. a particular location, the environment, etc.)?
  • Where?

    • If there's only one location, is there anything significant about it? Climate, access to water, etc.?
    • If there are multiple locations, do you want to focus on one in particular (ex. perceptions of the Cold War in the Pacific Northwest)?
  • When?

    • If it's a specific event, is there anything significant about the timing? Did something happen as a cause of or a result of another event?
    • If it's ongoing, do you want to focus on a particular timeframe? (ex. racism in the U.S. in the 2010s)
  • Why?

    • What were their/our motives?
  • How?

Things To Look For

You can also refine your topic by looking for:

  • Similarities
    Ex. Similar issues to overcome between the 1969 moon mission and the planned 2009 Mars Mission
  • Opposites
    Ex. American pro and con opinions about the first mission to the moon
  • Contrasts
    Ex. Protest or patriotism: different opinions about cost vs. benefit of the moon mission)
  • Relationships
    Ex. the NASA family: from the scientists on earth to the astronauts in the sky
  • Anthropomorphisms: interpreting reality in terms of human values
    Ex. Space: the final frontier
  • Personifications: giving objects or descriptions human qualities
    Ex. The eagle has landed: Animal symbols and metaphors in the space program
  • Repetition
    Ex. More missions to the moon: Pro and Con American attitudes to landing more astronauts on the moon

(This is called the SOCRAPR method. Yes, really.)

Tip: Don't feel like you have to stick with only one of these - you may come up with a really great topic by combining two or more questions or ideas!

Content in this section is adapted from:

Selecting a Topic - When to Narrow Down a Topic. Provided by Lumen Learning under a CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Example topics under Things To Look For heading are verbatim from the Lumen adaptation.

Their adaptation is based on:

Original source: Ways to Narrow Down a Topic. Provided by Utah State University under a CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

This adaptation is provided by SUNY Oswego, Penfield Library under a CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

4. Developing A Thesis

By this point, you've probably narrowed down your topic...

  • If your assignment does require research,
    • It's best to read and absorb that research before coming up with your thesis. 
    • Be aware your topic may change (a little or a lot) as you research. This is totally normal.  
  • If your assignment does not requires research, continue reading.

Creating Your Thesis

There are a few main ideas to keep in mind when formulating your thesis:

  • It should be arguable - you're stating a position that someone might agree or disagree with, based on the evidence you provide in your paper.
  • It should be a specific as possible, so that you can argue effectively. You'd likely have difficulty finding evidence that everyone in the world loves dogs, but you might be able to argue that dogs are popular in a particular city or state.
  • It should be compelling or interesting - you don't want to leave your professor (or yourself!) wondering, "So what? Why should I care about this?"

Here are a few potential templates you can use to form your thesis: 

____________ [topic] should be _____________ [specific point or argument] because _______________ [reason or reasons]. 

Example: The drinking age in NY state should be raised to 25 because of the alarming number of drinking-related fatalities of individuals between ages 18 and 25. 

Andrea Scott (2018) has provided two more thesis "templates" and examples:

By examining __________________ [topic/approach], we can see _____________________ [thesis — the claim that's surprising], which is important because ___________________________. [1]

Example: "By examining Sixteen Candles through the lens of Georg Simmel's writings on fashion, we can see that the protagonist's interest in fashion as an expression of her conflicted desire to be seen as both unique and accepted by the group. This is important because the film offers its viewers a glimpse into the ambivalent yearnings of middle class youth in the 1980s.

Although readers might assume _________________ [the commonplace idea you're challenging], I argue that _________________________ [your surprising claim].

Example: Although viewers might assume the romantic comedy Sixteen Candles is merely entertaining, I believe its message is political. The film uses the romance between Samantha, a middle-class sophomore, and Jake, an affluent senior, to reinforce the fantasy that anyone can become wealthy and successful with enough cunning and persistence.

Content in this section is from:

Formulating a Thesis. Provided by Andrea Scott, Writing Commons under a CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

Most content is paraphrased from the source; direct quotations are indicated in text.

The footnote referenced in the first direct quotation reads, "[1] Adapted from Erik Simpson’s 'Five Ways of Looking at a Thesis' at https://www.math.grinnell.edu/~simpsone/Teaching/fiveways.html."

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