Steps in Creating a Topic
Be a creative reader: This process should give you ideas and questions about what the work means. Any of these ideas or questions can be topics for papers.
Raise a key question about the work
- Reread a work
- Study formal elements in it
- Make connections between the work and your interests
- Assess what's good and bad about it
Write about a specific problem of interpretation. The 'problem' should be a question about the meaning of an aspect of the work or about the composing strategies of the work or about the cultural situation of the work.
What makes a topic good?
Use Search Strategies to Generate Topics: A search strategy is a procedure for locating and examining important aspects of a work. It is a self-teaching device that helps you think about the text. As you examine the work, you become aware of areas you can raise questions about, questions that may lead to good topics. The following is a brief listing of some of them.
- How easily can your audience answer the question that lies behind it?
- How meaningful is your topic? What would you want to know if you were reading your own essay?
- How focused is your topic? Your topic is good if you can deal with it thoroughly within the 10-12 page limit. Example: "Drama in Sixteenth-Century Prose Histories" would be far too large for a paper for this course. "Thomas More's Richard III as Villain" would be more specific and manageable.
Comments by Critics:
- Analysis separates a work into separate components or categories. You won't want to examine every component, but analysis allows a systematic investigation of the work and can provide a focus on aspects you might otherwise overlook.
- Traditional Patterns of Thinking are useful for generating ideas about almost any subject and for organizing essays. Aristotle called these patterns topoi, which means 'places.' He seems to have meant that these patterns are 'places' to look when you need to find ideas.
- Definition: when controversial or debatable terms are used, you must define them. Your claims may rest on the definition of a particular word within the work. For example, what is the definition of 'love' in Castiglione's Courtier?
- Structural analysis: identifies the parts of a 'structure,' something that has a definite pattern of organization. For example, you might examine the structure of Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella by tracing the mood of the poetic persona as the sequence progresses to its conclusion.
- Process Analysis: identifies the stages in which things change--characters, states of mind, societies, settings, situations, conditions. For example, a process analysis of the protagonist in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' would document Brown's emotional state from integration to disintegration. Another analysis might track an element of the character of Richard III in More's history of his rise to power.
- Comparison: indicates both similarities and differences between two or more subjects. When you make extended comparisons, you need to organize them so your readers can follow them. You should, for examples, cover the same aspects of all the things compared. If you compare two works and talk bout metaphor, symbolism, and imagery in one work, you need to talk about these same things in the other work. You should also discuss the aspects in the same order for each thing compared.
- One use is to establish the value of something. You might argue that one of Shakespeare's comedies is not as good as the others, because it lacks some of the qualities the others have. You might also argue that Wyatt's imitation of one of Petrarch's sonnets is superior for reasons you could document with evidence from the twin sonnets. You could compare one character to another, or one set of circumstances to another, or one setting to another in order to expose the nature of these things.
- Comparison is revealing when the author of a work makes allusions, or a reference to another work, a historical event, a myth, or an author. An allusion is always an invitation to compare the work at hand to the thing alluded to.
Your own knowledge: you can bring this to bear on a work of literature.
Talking and informal writing:
- Make a critic's whole approach or an isolated comment by a critic the starting point of your paper. You could write your paper in support of the idea or in disagreement with it.
- Don't forget writing done in the class-that is "critical" writing about the texts, too.
Modified from Griffith, Kelley. Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet, 5th ed.
- Conversing:imagine yourself talking to a friend about the work you want to write about or really talk to a person or post a message to the discussion board.
- Outlining: make an outline of the work
- Journals: talk to yourself in writing about a particular problem of interpretation