Moving from Assignment to Topic

At one point or other, the academic essay manages to intimidate most student writers. Sometimes, we may even experience what is commonly called writer's block—that awful experience of staring at an assignment, reading it over and over, yet being unable to proceed, to find a way into it. But the process of writing the academic essay involves a series of manageable steps. Keeping this in mind can help you work through the anxiety you may at first feel. If you find yourself "clueless" about beginning an essay, it may be because you have skipped an important step. You may be trying to come up with a thesis before finding and narrowing your topic.

Entering the Conversation

Try to approach the writing of an academic essay as a genuine opportunity to connect with the material, to think in a concentrated and stimulating way about the texts you've chosen, to articulate your own ideas. In short, think of the essay as a chance to challenge yourself and to contribute to the on-going conversation among scholars about the subject under discussion. What's at stake is your own intellectual development.

Writing is not playing someone else's game. Successful writing involves the creation and framing of your own questions about the sources you've chosen. You want to attend to the assignment at the same time that you locate and articulate your own, particular interest in it.

Primary and Secondary Sources

If you were a lawyer and had to present a case for your client, the worst thing you could do would be to face a jury and spout out random beliefs and opinions. ("Trust me. This guy's really honorable. He'd never do what he's accused of.") Instead, you would want to look for evidence and clues about the situation, investigate suspects, maybe head for the library to check out books on investment fraud or lock-picking. Whatever the circumstance, you would need to do the appropriate research in order to avoid looking foolish in the courtroom. Even if you knew what you had to argue—that your client was not guilty—you still would need to figure out how you were going to persuade the jury of it. You would need various sources to bolster your case. Writing an academic essay is similar, because essays are arguments that make use of primary and secondary sources.

Primary academic sources are sources that have not yet been analyzed by someone else. These include but are not limited to novels, poems, autobiographies, transcripts of court cases, and data sources such as the census, diaries, and Congressional records.

Books or essays that analyze another text are secondary sources. They are useful in supporting your argument and bringing up counterarguments which, in an academic essay, it is your responsibility to acknowledge and refute.

These are the basic rules that determine whether a source is primary or secondary, but there is some ambiguity. For instance, an essay that advances an original argument may serve as your primary source if what you're doing is analyzing that essays argument. But if the essay cites statistics that you decide to quote in support of your argument about a different text, then its function is as a secondary source. Therefore, always keep in mind that the academic essay advances an original argument—your argument, not the argument of the author of your secondary source. While secondary sources are helpful, you should focus your essay on one or more primary sources.

Subjects to Topics

In the courtroom, the topic is never a huge abstraction like "jurisprudence" or "the legal system" or even "capital punishment" or "guilt and innocence." All of those are subjects. A topic is particular: The Case of So-and-So v. So-and-So. Academic arguments, too, have topics. But if you tried to write an essay using "The Case of So-and-So v. So-and-So" as a topic, you wouldn't know what to put in and what to leave out. You'd wind up reproducing the court's own record of the case.

Narrowing the Topic

The topic of an academic essay must be sufficiently focused and specific in order for a coherent argument to be made about it. For instance, "The Role of Such-and-Such in the Case of So-and-So v. So-and-So" is a topic that is somewhat narrowed. But if "Such-and-Such" is extremely general, it too will require further narrowing. "The Role of Societal Pressures in the Case of Jones v. Smith" is an example—it's too general. "Alleged Jury Tampering in the Case of Jones v. Smith" narrows those societal pressures, and begins to suggest a persuasive argument. (Of course, even this topic could be further narrowed.)

Going through the following steps will help you focus your subject, find a topic, and narrow it.

  • Carefully read your primary source(s) and then, with the assignment in mind, go through them again, searching for passages that relate directly to the assignment and to your own curiosities and interests. When you find a passage that interests you, write down the reason for its significance. If you don't, you might forget its importance later.
  • Annotate some of the most intriguing passages—write down your ideas, opinions and notes about particular words, phrases, sentences. Don't censor your thoughts! Just write, even if you think that what you're writing doesn't add up to much. For now, get your impressions on paper; later, you'll begin to order and unify them.
  • Group passages and ideas into categories. Try to eliminate ideas that don't fit anywhere. Ask yourself if any of the emerging categories relate to any others. Do any of the categories connect, contradict, echo, prove, disprove, any others? The category with the most connections to others is probably your topic.
  • Look at some relevant secondary sources—at what other scholars have said—in order to get a sense of potential counterarguments to your developing topic. Remember: While taking notes, make sure to cite all information fully. This is a lot easier than having to go back later and figure out where you got a particular quote, or, worse, being unable to find it.

Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University