Finding Your Topic

You want to starting finding your interest for term papers, the BA Thesis, and for life, and it has to be completely interesting for you and others, because otherwise nobody cares and the entire exercise, from term papers to life, will bore you to death.


  • Search offers detailed advice on the search terms we discussed in class and my advice below suggests how you work in stages, beginning with an overview, then working with sub-topics, and only later reading intensively
  • Talk, then write explains why you do best to discuss your topic with a partner before writing, enjoy their feedback and support, and right afterwards write thing down as you spoke of them (and forgetting all the rules): capture that living, breathing conversation, grammar mistakes and all, to get the juices flowing and help you find your voice (editing comes much later)
  • Outlining Checklist offers you a detailed guide for organizing your notes once you’ve got a bunch of them — once you’ve got more than a bunch of lists: when your problem becomes complex, you’ll need to organize complexity, to make lists of lists — which is what we do when outlining
  • Connecting with your Reader is the second chapter of The Craft of Research and where you will find three different kinds of writing — chit-chat, reports, and research — and where you want to figure out what is special about that third, research kind


The problem is that in a given day we typically have a few interesting thoughts in the middle of a zillion distractions, and any topic work worth working up will be complex and so needing to be built up over time: by “brainstorming” we mean cultivating creativity and discovery while also capturing and organizing our findings

  • Work on those parts that appear to be of most benefit to you (not to me): this is not about pleasing the teacher, but about you finding your interest for now and a lifetime
  • Work in small, bite-sized pieces, sometimes it is better to look up one little thing briefly every day or two (and definitely do not wait until the assignment is due)
  • Maybe compare what is new to what you know, the “donkey bridge”, and where you write a sentence or two, not much, but get started, beginning: “it like …” and so make a connection, comparison, and so add to your memory
  • Survey a bunch of articles without going into too much depth so you have something to choose from, discuss with others, and write up over time, as things sink in, as you talk about them


Notes made along the way, when you observe something interesting, draw some interesting connection, recall some special way someone has explained things, can serve as powerful prompts for outlining and drafting later: catch them before they disappear using a note pad on your phone (or in a notebook) that is synced with your desktop or laptop. For excellent discussions of note-taking in the creative process of writing, please visit

Aim high! Look especially for what excites you, moves you, and will motivate you to invest the considerable time and energy you will need to invest — sometimes way beyond what you invest in a normal homework assignment — to get to know your topic, and why you have chosen it, and dig deep enough for it to be meaningful: best is to aim for a term paper in another class as it will lead to your BA Thesis

Follow your nose, brain, and heart as you survey your initial topics and look for your sparks of interest, and be prepared to change your topic as you go along: sometimes, or rather often, you will spend hours on one thing only to learn that you want to take one piece of it, throw the rest into “save for later” file, and run with the hottest thing

Don’t worry about how it all fits together, that’s what you do when editing much, much later: just keep track of your materials and thoughts, and run!

Talk/write from day one: as you take notes, explain your findings to others, then right away write a few sentences and congratulate yourself for making sense and making small steps!

How to read

Most students start off reading in detail and intensively even before they have a good idea where they are going: don’t do it: first aim to develop scope, to survey what interests others and you, and delay final judgment: the world is big, there is a lot out there …

  • Skim; to get the overall shape, to figure out what interests you, and make notes in the margins or circle or highlight things so you can keep track of interesting things without slowing down your skimming over lots of interesting stuff
  • Scan for specific information when you’ve identified potential topics, and often it is good to look for and write down the sub-heads that organize most business writing
  • Read intensively once you’ve surveyed your topic, collected a bunch of sub-topics, sorted them, and have chosen the most interesting
  • Read extensively only after you’ve drafted the general outlines, when you have good sense of proportion

Discuss your “scene of writing”

Reflection on learning to write is vital to our enterprise, because only with reflection, some distance from what we’ve tried to do, do we have a chance to identify success and figure out better ways.

Writing is a creative process, and sometimes the best way to do this is explore some secondary topic you find interesting so that you can return to your main topic refreshed and with perspective.

Explore one of the following:

  • Briefly discuss the time, place, and order of your “scene of writing,” where you do your homework and how: Where and when do you write best? What do you need to get going (clean room, drink coffee, write an email to a friend?)
  • Or: Who are your writing heroes? Role models are your friends, they offer examples of topic, method, style, attitude, and their own admirable example.

My writing hero these days is the physician Oliver Sachs, here shown traveling, having dropped everything to write down what he is thinking. Among the many memorable lines is from the movie based on his work called Awakenings: “…these people, I know, they are alive inside …

  • Or, explore the principles of clean, modern typography and page design we examined briefly in class in the article Whitespace
  • Or, master some powerful little secondary method, like making annotated screenshots using Jing or your OS system’s snipping tool: install it, learn how to use it, write up your learning, and discussing this tool and your learning how to use it
  • Or, learn how to use a window managers, an application starter, image collections, and shortcuts like you see me do in class and so get to know your machine, reduce the mysteries, develop an efficient workflow, so your machine for writing really becomes your friend
  • Or, explore OMMWRITER, IA WRITER, Workflowy, or a one of the many free writing applications for writers so that you understand the alternatives to MS Word and how and why we are learning how to make MS Word, and especially using the Outline View, our fast, fun writing application