Getting Started

Few things frustrate us more than writer's block. Different problems bring about this "block" and thankfully most of those problems have solutions. Look for the situation below that you most closely relate to, and start there.

Broad, Open Topic Assignment

Some students consider the broad, open topic assignment a nightmare. They would prefer that the teacher assign a specific topic which has built-in direction and focus. Sometimes teachers actually do this (see Teacher Assigned Topic below), but most of the time they give students a general subject or type of writing assignment, and the student narrows the topic from there (see Modal Assignments). Here we are talking about something much broader. For instance, this broad, open topic assignment might be assigned in a history class or a biology class by a teacher who wants students to explore various subjects related to the class but leaves the content and its focus in the hands of the students. The only directions given are the date due and the length of the paper.

In the absence of this teacher-direction, students must learn to consider and select a topic that will be not just suitable, but ideal, for themselves. Not just any subject will do in an open assignment such as this. Many students, intimidated by the task, get stuck at the "gate" to the assignment. Here are some guidelines to help students select an excellent topic for the open assignment.

Topic guidelines

  • Consider your interests. The class may be a "boring" one to you, but you have to complete this assignment, anyway. Is there a subject you are interested in, and can you connect that subject to this class for this assignment? If so, you've got a winner. Even if you're not "bored," ask yourself this question, "What idea or thing would I like to know more about, if I had the time to research it?" You may have several answers to that question, and a couple of them may be related to this class. Now you have just the opportunity you've been waiting for.
  • Consider your thinking skills. One of the things you want to accomplish with this assignment is impressing the teacher with your ability to cover in depth a new subject, revealing your ability to report, synthesize, and evaluate information. So choose a topic that will allow you to shine.
  • Consider your writing skills. If a topic is too technical for your understanding, you will have difficulty writing about it. However, this is an opportunity to "stretch" those mental muscles, so choose a topic that is challenging, but workable.
  • Start with a fairly broad topic and then narrow. The advantage here is that a broader topic will be easier to research. If you find the topic too broad, you can always narrow it later. Caution: leaving the topic broad usually leads to "surface" writing--an over-simple presentation of generalizations rather than an in-depth study. In making this assignment, the teacher probably wanted to see your ability to develop a topic thoroughly. You cannot do that with a broad topic, so while you want to start with a broad subject, you really need to be prepared to refocus.

Teacher Assigned Topic

When the teacher assigns a topic, the student may still have some room to narrow the topic, depending on the instructions. If that is the case for you, you need to follow the guidelines above to narrow the topic appropriately. If the assigned topic is already narrowed for you, then you can go on to use one of the many methods of gathering your thoughts:

  • Brainstorming is a method often used by "list-makers" although sometimes the term is used as an umbrella term for all methods of gathering information. Actually, brainstorming involves listing (in random order) all the ideas (big and small) that have to do with your topic. The purpose of this activity is to find out what you already know on the topic. Doing brainstorming in a group is very helpful because several people will likely come up with a more substantial list than a single person. Having a list like this will be a big help when you begin to organize, but it helps here by giving you a list of ideas that need to be explored.
  • Free writing is a method whereby a writer sits for a given period of time (usually 15 to 30 minutes) and just writes on paper whatever comes into his/her head regarding the topic. After this focused free writing, the writer can then look at what he/she has written and discover there what ideas need to be explored or researched.
  • Journalist Questions is another method that helps to generate areas of exploration and development. The traditional questions--"who," "what," "when," "why," "where" and "how"--not only spark ideas, they also provide an approach to that exploration.
  • Mapping is a technique much like brainstorming with a dominant visual element. Instead of making a list of ideas, the writer "plots" them visually on a page, drawing circles, boxes, and connecting lines between related ideas.

Modal Assignments

Sometimes when a teacher gives an assignment, he/she will also indicate how the information is to be presented. Be sure your topic will meet the demands of the assignment mode, if one is given. Different modes emphasize different elements (such as organization or level of detail). Part of getting started includes understanding what you are being asked to do. For instance, if you were asked to compare the attack strategies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, you would want to focus on the similarities (as opposed to contrast which shows differences). If your assignment is simply to write a comparison/contrast paper, you will need to select things that can be evaluated on the same basis (for example, comparing one type of apple to another type as opposed to comparing apples to oranges).

Your college compositions book should offer insights regarding the various modes and how to implement them successfully. Remember that modes are supposed to serve your message, not the other way around. Your organization and development will always be governed by your purpose and your audience.