Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anatomy of a Paper Topic

What follows is more of a step-by-step guide than an anatomy:
  1. Pay attention and engage your mind in class
  2. Pay attention and engage your mind as you do the assigned readings.
  3. Wait for an "Ah ha!" moment to occur, then note it. (An "Ah ha!" moment is a moment where certain ideas and insights coalesce in your mind in such a way where you suddenly know something you didn't know before -- or, you understand something you already knew but in a different way. It's a light bulb moment, a moment that causes you to say "Ah ha! Now I get it!" The only way you will have an "Ah ha!" moment is if you do Steps 1 and 2.)
  4. Figure out how the "Ah ha!" moment occurred for you. What made you say "Ah ha!"? Why did that thing or those things cause you to say "Ah ha!"? What is interesting about the text you were reading/discussing, to cause this "Ah ha!" moment to occur? These sorts of questions would be your research questions (and would contain more specifics than my generic examples, of course).
  5. Using the tools of your discipline (this is largely where your professor/teacher comes in, although he/she will certainly play a role in the above steps as well), close-read the text in question in order to understand where the "Ah ha!" moment came from, i.e. how it (the "Ah ha!" moment) is constructed or built within the text.
  6. Your thesis becomes something like: "Here is an 'Ah ha!' moment that occurs in [insert text here], and this 'Ah ha!' moment is caused by X, Y and Z." You need to do the work in Step 5 to identify X, Y and Z. Furthermore, the length of the X-Y-Z list should be determined by your page length, meaning, only cover the number of points necessary to fill the number of pages for the paper. You won't be able to know in advance how many points this will be, unless you are hyper-aware of your writing and research style, so it's better to come up with a longer list, prioritize it, and then write the paper illustrating how X contributes to the "Ah ha!" moment, how Y does the same (and builds on X, ideally), so on and so forth until you see you need to wrap it up. 

So, if I were to turn the above into more of an anatomy, or at least an equation, it would be:
"Ah ha!" Moment + (How the "Ah ha!" Moment Occurs/tools and methods in your discipline) = Paper Topic or Thesis
...or something like that.

I like writing papers in this manner because it guarantees that the work I'll be doing is, to a certain extent, original. How do I know this? Because it was my "Ah ha!" moment. Could others have had the same "Ah ha!" moment before me? Sure. But will the same X, Y and Z be the combined cause of that shared "Ah ha!" moment? Probably not. And usually, the X, Y and Z of your study affects how the "Ah ha!" moment is articulated, thus your articulated "Ah ha!" moment is in many ways unique to you. 

Paper-writing, Spring 2010 

Disclaimer: This is not the only way to decide on a paper topic (or put more broadly, a research topic). This is simply what works for me, particularly in the humanities. And, it guarantees that you'll be interested in your research topic. There's nothing worse than writing a paper about something that doesn't interest you. You shouldn't have to, so don't.


  1. Beautiful equation! I wrote an essay recently and probably could have used that. :)

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my blog!


  2. I LOVE THIS! Man, I saw this a bit too late! :) I dig the equation.