Find a Topic: Asking Questions

I like to think of “finding my topic” as a process of inquiry. I start by asking questions . . .

The Question:

Before we start talking about questions I’d like to dispel a possible worry you may have at the moment. “The Question” isn’t really one question but a series of questions your essay will answer. So don’t sweat having to come up with some sort of epic, unanswerable question right from the beginning. Yes, your essay should seek to ultimately answer a big question you have about your object of study through a sustained, well-articulated argument. I like to call my thesis question the macro-question answered by my essay. And, I call all the little questions that help me answer my macro-question the micro-questions explored in my writing. This turns out to be a useful organizational aid. Once I have my macro-question, I use my micro-questions as the controlling ideas of my body paragraphs. This way, each body paragraph is sure to attend to and evolve the argument of my thesis.

Where do you start? What follows are my three favorite introductory questions attending to the interpretation of texts.

What do you see? What do you make of it? Why does it matter?

These three, simple questions are at the foundation of all good thesis writing. They’re the steps we take on our way to discovering the big question—the macro-question—we want to answer about a text. Ultimately, our macro-question will ask all three of these questions at the same time.

Step one: what do you see?

Identify something—a word, a character, a theme, a noun, a verb, an object, a subject, an image, a claim, an anything—that catches your attention. Find something that piques your intellectual interests, something that draws an emotional response from you. You should always write about something important to you. Something you can care about. Tip: marking up your page is a good way to discover what sparks your curiosity—circle words that stand out to you, highlight passages that make you smile, frown, laugh or turn the page in a hurry, scribble in the margins when words get weird or confusing.

Step two: what do you make of it?

Talk about what you see. What do you think about the anything you’ve seen in your text? In answering this question, try to stick to how you respond to what you’ve seen in step one without rendering a value judgment. I.e. “this book sucks,” “I really dig Mr. Darcy,” “I love Vonnegut.” Value judgments—the good, the bad, and the ugly—do little in the way of illuminating what you see. Instead, they tend to form terminal arguments that leave little room for explication. But beginning with the way a text makes you feel can be a powerful mode of discovery as we seek our macro-question—in Aristotelian terms, our pathos can illuminate our logos. Very often the “what you make of it” will operate as part of the claim you talk about during your essay.

Step three: why does it matter?

This is the key. The most important of our little questions, “why does it matter?” will, hopefully, form the foundation of your essay. You may be wondering, “who does it matter to?” My answer: “it’s different every time we ask the question.” Sometimes, it matters to you, me, the character, the idea, the noun, the subject, the text as a totality, the sentence as it stands alone in a sea of other sentences. It matters to whatever you saw in step one and made of it step two. The who or what “it matters” to is far less important than your ability to answer the why of your macro-question.

A few more questions:

How do you know if the macro-question you’ve come up with is any good? Will it provide the spark that ignites the argument you want to perform in your essay? I suppose what we’re asking is: how do we filter our macro-questions?
I like to ask myself if the macro-question I’ve come up with is :

Too simple?

This usually occurs when your macro-question attempts to ask about the validity of heretofore established facts that have little wiggle room. Stuff like “is water wet” or “Does Dr. King’s speech “I Have a Dream” advocate for equality in America?” Ask yourself, “can my macro-question be answered with a straightforward yes or no” as an easy way to identify a too simple macro-question. If you find that the question you’ve come up with operates as a yes or no binary, you may have forgotten to ask, “why it matters.” Try not to set up your argument as an either/or logical fallacy. There are many sides to every story, interpretation, argument, etc. Usually, the best thesis argues by degrees of difference. The argumentative thesis lives in a rarefied space that does not act as an absolute but still makes a strong claim about an idea you hope to explore in your essay. Leave reserve room to consider the opposition

Too broad?

This happens, most often, when the question you ask is just way too big to be answered within the confines of your paper. Something like, “Is Hip-Hop protest music?” or “is murder always evil?” Remember, to tailor your inquiry process to the task at hand. Very often it’s best to be as specific as possible when asking a question that you want to pursue as the claim made by your essay. The best argumentative theses are approachable hypotheses that attend to material your essay investigates without making grandiose unprovable claims. An easy way to fix a macro-question that is just too big to prove is often just a quick narrowing of your macro-question topic. Instead of asking about all of Hip-Hop, try asking about a particular subgenre, time period or artist in the field.

Too speculative?

This question is a bit trickier to narrow down. More often than not this kind of macro-question requires an answer that there is no evidence to either support or deny the claim queried by the macro-question. For example, “is there a God?” or “will Ross and Rachel stay together?” The best argumentative theses are approachable hypotheses that attend to material your essay investigates without making grandiose unprovable claims. Perhaps aliens do exist—I certainly believe the truth is out there—but it’d be a stretch to prove aliens built the pyramids in a research paper on Egyptian architecture. I find the best way to amend a question that’s far too abstract to prove in a short essay is to toss it in the trash and start again. It’s usually painful but in the end, you’ll have saved a ton of time.

The finish:

Once you have your filter-tested, query approved macro-question in hand, the next step is to flip the grammatical structure of the question into a statement. This grammatical turn of phrase can be a bit tricky. No worries, you’ve already done all the hard work. The process of repeatedly asking questions of and about what you see in a text requires patience and fortitude. Turning a well-thought-out question into a statement you can get behind takes a quick revision to the form of our macro-question. Here’s an example of how I turn a macro-question into and an argumentative thesis.

Watch: “How does Dr. King use both literary and biblical allusions to support his call for equality in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech?” becomes . . . “In his speech “I Have a Dream,” Dr. King uses both literary and biblical allusions to support his call for equality.”

A few notes to keep in mind.

Earlier in this post, we talked about some of the names, forms, and rules of thesis writing you may have encountered in your long tenure as a student scholar. Some of these ring true to this day. Your thesis should be a carefully written sentence or series of sentences. I find that the longer my essay is the longer, more complicated my thesis becomes, though this is by no means an absolute—so few things are in world of academic writing. Your thesis should be easy to locate. Your thesis does not necessarily have to appear in the first or second paragraph of your essay but no matter where it shows up, your thesis should be easy to identify. And, yes, your thesis should be clear, concise, and expertly articulated. The thesis remains the most important aspect of your essay. It should be the bit of your essay that you write and rewrite and write again so that it is as close to perfect (in content and style) as you can manage. You want your thesis to be wrapped in all the confidence and consideration your good mind can muster.

Often, your thesis will change. This is totally okay. I know what you may be thinking, “So, I’m going to spend hours thinking up a magnificent, argumentative thesis only to have it change as I write my essay. bummer.” Yes. Essays evolve as we write them. We start with a hypothesis, propose an argument, and, then, seek to illustrate the validity of our position in writing over the course of two or six or twenty pages. When we write, it’s important to keep an open mind. To let our research take us down new trails of thought and experience as we look for answers in the texts we read. Do not worry. You are prepared for this eventuality. After your essay is done, return to your introductory paragraph(s), locate your thesis, and ask yourself if the essay you wrote attends to the argument you proposed in your thesis. If the answer is yes, kudos. Go back, reread and revise your work, and get prepared to turn it into your professor. If not, no worries. A few edits to your thesis may be all you need to make your finished essay match your original argument. Do not feel as if you have to rewrite your essay to match your original argument. A thesis is not set in stone. It is a malleable claim meant to evolve as your thinking ebbs and flows. Though, please be sure to return to your document to restart the editing process. Revision is the sweetness and light of composition.

Sometimes our theses become disguised as blueprints for our essays. As in, “in this essay, I will discuss…” Earlier in your academic career, you may have been told that a good introduction lets your audience know what you’re going to discuss in the body of your essay. This may still be true, providing your reader with a map of your essay at the end of your introductory paragraph(s) can be a useful transition into the body of your essay. Though you don’t necessarily have to tell the reader what you will do before you do it to write a good essay—remember there are no absolutes. It’s important that you don’t substitute a blueprint for an argument. If you think of your essay’s map as an addendum to your thesis, then all will be well.

Finally, one last time, remember, your thesis should be an argument—a process of reasoning that defends an opinion, which operates as the subject matter or theme of your essay. Simply said, your thesis is the claim you make that you will support throughout your essay through the careful exposition of evidentiary material.


More Resources on Discovering your Topic: 

The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill has a wonderful post detailing a series of useful brainstorming activities. Click Here.

This handout produced by creative commons is an effective crib sheet when choosing a research topic.

The University of Michigan-Flint’s Library Services ably breaks down the process of sifting through the material you generated during your brainstorming and turning those good ideas into an approachable thesis statement. Click Here.

Hosted by the Library at the University of Kansas, this video discusses the relationship between choosing a topic and research.