How to Narrow Down a Topic for an Essay


Many first-time writers are terrified of specifics. Writing a focused essay may feel like solitary confinement, but in practice selecting a vague topic is like working on an intellectual chain gang. Consider the amount of information available on a general topic like global warming: laws, incentive programs, green technologies and effects on ecosystems, to name a few. Consider now, the more manageable topic of rising sea levels on coastal communities. The topic of rising sea levels will require far less research, but it is more likely to reveal new information than the vague and tired topic of global warming.

Things You'll Need

  • Scrap paper
  • Pen or pencil


  • Brainstorm to refine and narrow the topic for your essay. Basic writing guides, often provide numerous examples. The four most common brainstorming techniques are: idea maps, free-writing exercises, lists and critical questions.

    Construct an idea map by circling the general topic and draw lines and smaller circles out from the center bubble. Record any thoughts that occur, even if they seem unrelated to your topic, and continue the process by expanding out from other bubbles.

    Write continuously without censoring your thoughts. If you cannot think of something, simply write, "I'm stuck" until a new thought occurs. It is common for your writing to wander in a free-writing exercise, but the key is to write continuously.

    Create a list of ideas related to your general topic. From this list, select one word or phrase and create another list. Continue this process for 10 minutes or until the page is full.

    Ask critical questions about your topic, beginning with: who, what, where, why, when or how. Answer the question and ask additional questions about your answer.

  • Highlight only the most specific topics developed from your brainstorming. For instance, if you created a list of words related to global warming, review the sublist you created, then the sub-sub-list, and so-forth.

    In this example, the most specific topic is: Threat to Coastal Cities

    Topic: Global Warming > List: Melting Ice Caps, Carbon Emissions, Ecosystems
    Sub-Topic: Melting Ice Caps > List: Polar Bears, Rising Sea Levels, Desalination
    Sub-Sub-Topic: Rising Sea Levels > List: Threat to Coastal Cities

  • Examine the topics you've highlighted. Circle the topics you find most interesting and compare them with each other.

  • Create a list of at least five topic groups before committing to a single topic. For instance, consider these samples from an idea map on global warming:

    Global Warming > Melting Ice Caps > Rising Sea Levels > Threat to Coastal Cities
    Global Warming > How to Prevent? > Green Technologies > Solar Power
    Global Warming > Government Programs > Cash for Clunkers
    Global Warming > Government Programs > Levees

    It is unlikely that "Solar Power" and "Cash for Clunkers" would lead to a fruitful paper, as there are few solar-powered cars and the program is now defunct. However, if you were to combine "Levees" and "Threat to Coastal Cities" into a single topic, you could explore the practical possibility of reducing the damage caused by global warming.

  • Create a list of at least three of your combined subtopics.


  • Formulate a thesis statement for each of the combined subtopics. The thesis should be a single sentence, not a question, and answer a critical question about the topic.

  • Underline the topic with the most compelling thesis statement, as this will be your topic of choice.

  • Write the essay.

  • Photo Credit Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images
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