Generating ideas for topics
Choosing a good topic
-Sample literary topics
Avoiding a poor topic
Making sure your choice will work

 If your topic is assigned by your teacher, you don't need to read any further.

Go back!

If you are responsible for choosing a topic, read on!


You can generate lots of good research paper ideas by paying attention to the world that's going on around you.

Check out newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the Internet. A few helpful links may be found to the right.


the Washington Post

the Commercial Appeal

the New York Times


Time Magazine





National Public Radio

The Internet

Research Paper Idea Generator

Research Paper Idea Directory

eLibrary-the Electric Library

Other possible sources of topics: friends, parents, classes, your personal interests and, when all else fails, why not ask your teacher?


What is a good topic?

A good topic has the following characteristics:

1. It's the kind your teacher assigned: make sure you understand what the different kinds of research papers are and which one of these your teacher wants you to write. For help, see "What is a Research Paper?"

2. It's interesting: a good topic interests your readers and interests you enough that you won't be bored stiff after studying it for many hours.

Potentially boring topic: The history of the paper bag

Potentially interesting topic: Argue that fetal tissue research should be permanently banned for moral reasons.

3. It's manageable: if you bite off more than you can chew, you'll be in trouble. Choose a topic, then limit it so that it can adequately be written about in the paper's assigned length.

Unmanageable topic: The Nobel Prize

Manageable topic: Compare and contrast the Nobel Prize acceptance addresses of William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.

4. It's worthwhile: choose something that matters to you and your readers.

Not very worthwhile topic: Traffic rules (don't write a paper on it; get a driver's manual!)

Worthwhile topic: Qualified women should be allowed to serve in combat in the U.S. military.

5. It's Original: good topics don't repeat common knowledge for the zillionth time. What's the point of that? Choose a topic that gives room for originality and interesting conclusions.

Unoriginal topic: Ernest Hemingway's life

Original Topic: How Hemingway's family history of suicide darkened his fiction


Sample Literary Topics-Idea Generator

Sample 1

Too broad: Write a character sketch of (character's name) in (literary work).

Better: Compare and contrast (character's name) in (literary work) and (character's name) in (a different literary work) as ____*_____.

* =: Christ figures, tragic heroes, American dreamers, liberated women, nefarious villains, other archetypes

Example: Compare and contrast Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Simon in Lord of the Flies as Christ figures.

Sample 2

Too broad: Research and report on the biography of (author's name).

Better: Discuss how (author's name)'s life experiences directly influence his or her perspective on (subject matter) in (literary work).

Example: Discuss how Ernest Hemingway's life experiences directly influence his perspective on war in A Farewell to Arms.


Sample 3

Too broad: Discuss the offensiveness of the material in (literary work).

Better: Defend or argue against the teaching of (literary work) in a high school classroom.

Example: Defend or argue against the teaching of The Chocolate War in a high school classroom.



Sample 4

Too broad: Research and report on (an era).

Better: Criticize or defend (literary work) as an historical representation of the lives of (a group of people) during (an era).

Example: Criticize or defend The Importance of Being Earnest as an historical representation of the upper class during England's Victorian period.

Sample 5

Too broad: Discuss a variety of critical interpretations of (literary work).

Better: Critic (name of critic) said the following about _____*_____:(supply quotation). Argue in agreement or disagreement with this critic's assertion.

* =: A writer, an artist, a literary work, a literary character, a literary element, an historical context, other

Example: Critic Babette Deutsch said the following about John Crowe Ransom: "[W]hatever his subject . . . his tone is right. The glint of irony is there, deepened as well as softened by a sensitiveness without a grain of sentimentality." Argue in agreement or disagreement with this critic's assertion, considering particularly the appropriateness of Ransom's tone in the poem "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter."


What must I avoid in choosing a topic?

1. Topic is too broad

-"The Ice Age" is too broad for a brief research paper.

-"The role of the Ice Age in the formation of the Great Lakes" may work.

2. Topic is too narrow

-"Metric cooking conversions" could be summarized in a few sentences.

-"Why the United States should convert completely to the metric system" may work.

3. Topic is trivial

A general audience won't care much about careful descriptions of fossilized pollen.

4. Topic is overdone

Forget papers on abortion, satanism, witchcraft, and rock bands. You'll be boring your teacher silly.

5. Topic is too technical

Even if you master some technical field, you'll spend your whole paper just trying to explain what your paper is about.

6. Topic is almost all factual

A research paper is not a compiled list of facts. It must have lots of analysis - your analysis - to fly.

7. Topic is too contemporary

Unless you are allowed to use all Internet sources and/or all periodicals, some topics are too recent to have anything written about them in book form.

8. Topic is not the kind the teacher assigned:

Make sure you understand what the different kinds of research papers are and which one of these your teacher wants you to write. For help, see "What is a Research Paper?"


 What should I do before committing to a topic?

1. Make sure you can word your topic in the form of a question.

How likely is it that an asteroid will strike the earth?

How do cults differ from unusual religious sects?

What could be done to make opera bearable?

Why do states with the most executions still lead the nation in murder rates?


2. Do some preliminary checking. Get on the Internet. Go to the library. Try to find material for your proposed topic.* If you find little, consider broadening your topic or changing it completely.

*the fastest way to do this is to get on line and do a quick search using keywords in a large search engine like yahoo or altavista.

3. If your topic has been approved by your teacher, you are now ready to begin your research.


Ready to move on? Proceed to step #3: "How Do I Write a Thesis Statement?"

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much of the information on this page is based upon the following two books:
Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers. New York: Longman, 1999.
Sorenson, Sharon. A Quick Reference to The Research Paper. New York: Amsco, 1999.