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It is natural that when we encounter a new idea we want to share it with someone else. But beware of the tendency to try to base an essay entirely on summarizing the ideas of someone else. Keep in mind two things. First, in order to write an effective essay to any audience, you need to know more about the topic than your readers do. Second, in order to use sources effectively in writing about any topic, you need to be giving your readers something they couldnít get better simply by reading your sources themselves.
First, you need to know more about the topic than your readers do. That means that if you have an idea that is suggested by something we have read in class, you canít write an effective essay by just summarizing or slightly expanding on what we have already read. Weíve all read the assigned reading. Telling us what it said will not be news.
Second, you need to write an essay that goes beyond the sources you use. The most obvious error that beginning essayists make here is to try to write an essay based almost entirely on a single source. The result may be informative, and even interesting. But it will also give the readers the impression that we would have been better off reading your source than reading your essay!
The point here is that the best way to get essay ideas is often to start with ideas you encounter in reading for the class or in class discussion. But that is the beginning of the process of developing an essay topic, not the end.
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The fact is that when you have the feeling that you donít have any ideas you are almost always wrong. The problem is that you are repressing the ideas you do have because they donít feel right or complete to you. None of the ideas you can think of seems like it would make a good essay. In a way, this is true. None of the initial ideas that we come up with for an essay is yet an essay topic. That is because itís a long way and a lot of work between the idea and the essay. Even the best essay topic starts out as an undeveloped, anemic, hint of what the finished essay will say. Thus almost all initial ideas are easy to reject. But if you go with your first tendency to reject every idea, youíll end up a week later desperate because you "canít think of anything to write about." If this is a serious problem for you, you should review the Cognitive Distortions because you are almost certainly using some of them to close off your thinking. All-or-nothing Thinking and Personalization are among the likely candidates.
There are a number of simple steps that you can take to get off the dime when you are stuck for a topic. All of them, however, involve using pencil and paper and actually writing something down, not just sitting and thinking about it. Iíll give you my favorite technique, which I would suggest that you use as a first resort when youíre stuck, then in 1.3.3 Iíll point you to some places where you can get more help if you need it. And keep in mind that these are techniques that you can use if you have trouble coming up with a topic. Most of the time you wonít; youíll find that you have a number of ideas that emerge from the reading or discussion or that you have thought about in the past and you just need to decide which one is most promising. The following suggestion is something to do only if you are stuck and canít come up with a topic.
Hereís the basic technique. If you actually do it, it is virtually guaranteed to produce an essay topic for you. But you have to do it, and you have to start doing it early, at least a couple of weeks before the essay is due.
First, give yourself five minutes to write down on a piece of paper ten possible essay topics. The goal here is not to write down good topics. It is not even to come up with the topic you will eventually use for your essay. It is just to get down ten possible topics very quickly. In fact, if you are doing it right at least several of the topics you write down will be so obviously stupid that you would never actually try to write an essay on them. If you donít come up with some obviously dumb topics you are censoring yourself. Stop trying to think of "good" topics. Just write down at least ten. And do it quickly. If you spend a half hour on this you are doing it wrong. Five minutes, ten at the most. After you have written your ten topics down, read them over aloud immediately. If you find that you have thought of any other topics while reading the list over, add them to the bottom of the list. Add as many as you like. Then put the list aside for at least several hours, preferably for a full day. If you come up with ideas at any time, however, write them down while youíre thinking about them. If you are anything like me, you will forget even your best ideas if you donít write them down.
Second, go back to your list after several hours or the next day. Read it over slowly, aloud. If you have any other ideas, add them to the list. (You may have a rather long list by now; thatís excellent.) Then circle the most promising three topics on the list. After you have done so, on a separate, clean sheet of paper, write out each of those three topics in the form of the question. For example, if one of your original topics was "amoeba reproduction" you might phrase it "how does the amoeba reproduce?" After you have written the three questions out read over them. Do any better questions occur to you? If so, write them down under the original three in the form of questions. Then set the list aside for at least several hours, preferably a full day.
Third, go back to your list after several hours or the next day. Read it over slowly, aloud. If you find that any better questions occur to you, write them down in the form of questions. Then read over the list again. Take a new, clean sheet of paper. Which of the questions that you have written down has the most interesting answer? The answer that could lead to the most interesting essay? Pick one (if you canít decide, flip a coin or draw straws), and write down at the top of the clean sheet of paper, first the question, then a tentative answer to the question. At this point, you may not know the answer to the question. So you have to guess. But thatís OK. Once you have written out the answer to one of the questions as a complete sentence, you have a trial thesis statement.
Now the topic you come up with as a result of this process may not be the topic you end up writing about. It is a default topicĖone that you can use if nothing better comes along. When you start reading and exploring the topic, you may come across something that is an obviously better topic. Feel free to change your topic. But donít change your topic until you can see that the new topic is a clear improvement over the old one. No topic will be any good until you begin to explore it and develop it. So never give up your default topic until you can replace it with another one that is clearly better.
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What you do precisely is less important than taking action, quickly, to get off the dime. Do not wait. Take charge.
Chuck Guilford, a professor at Boise State University in Idaho provides a brief but thorough discussion of ways of developing ideas in the Paradigm Online Writing Assistant. Scan through these ideas, pick the one you hate the least, and follow through with it. I find that the most reliable way for me to get started is freewriting. But the reporters' questions can also open aspects of a topic quickly for me. Something quite different may work best for you. The one thing that never works--at least in time to do any good--is just waiting for "inspiration." Don't wait. Act.
Don't waste days and days discarding topic after topic in search of the perfect topic. Many of us feel that if we had the perfect topic the essay would write itself. That's not the way it is. Even if you do find the perfect topic--whatever that is--you still have to write the essay. Find something you want to say, then concentrate on saying it. Modify your topic whenever you can improve it, but don't throw it out and start over unless you are willing to spend twice as much time working on the new topic you've thought of.
I mean this more strongly than you can probably hear right now. Try to make your topic too narrow, narrower than you thought possible. You want to say more about less, not less about more.
Here are two practical ways of doing this: First, write your trial thesis statement about a single person or a single event. Avoid abstract nouns as much as you can. Avoid words like "society" altogether. Try to be absolutely specific. If you were writing, for example, about the "Y2K problem," (thankfully, it's too late now for that one!), rather than asking what the Y2K problem is or how it would affect American society, ask "How will the Y2K problem affect me, a student at Palomar College?" Then answer that question. If you are writing about teamwork, don't start with the question "How can teams work more effectively?" Start with something like, "How can work teams at the Dunkin' Donuts where I work improve the quality of baked goods?" If you start out with a very specific topic, you may have to broaden it somewhat. But it is much easier, when you're actually working on an essay, to broaden a narrow topic than to narrow one that is too broad.
Second, if you have a fairly broad topic, and you can't see any way to narrow it, try this. Limit the category you are writing about three times by choosing a sub-category to focus on. For example, say you start out with something like "the effect of television on American society." You can narrow down both of the key terms three times. What kind of effect? The negative effects. What kind of negative effects? The negative effects on children. What kind of negative effects on children? The tendency to promote violence. What kind of television? Children's television programming. What children's television programming? Cartoons. What cartoons? Saturday morning cartoons. So by narrowing down the key concepts you have moved from "the effect of television on American society" to "Saturday morning cartoons promote violent behavior in children." Notice that this topic is still not specific enough, but it is a lot more specific than what you started with.
I think the first method, going to a specific example, is easier and quicker for narrowing down your topic. But you may have more success narrowing down a broader topic. One problem doing that is that you may be unsure about what you will be able to support this early. So you will need to narrow down your topic arbitrarily. That's fine. Remember you can always change it. All we are talking about here is your topic, remember. You will narrow it down much more when you get to work on developing a thesis statement.
For writing an essay, you need to explain not just what you believe but why you believe it, not just what is true but how you know it is true. Think about where you will find the evidence to support your position. You should begin to do research, perhaps even before you have finally selected a topic, in order to find out what' s available and how you can support your position.
1.4 The Thesis Statement
Copyright © 2000 by John Tagg
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