If you are a student assigned a literature term paper, but aren't given a specific question to answer (as on a literature exam), there are a number of steps to take before beginning to write. The first of these is to select an essay topic.
A topic (or subject) is, simply put, whatever the essay is about. By definition, it is somewhat general – but finding a good one is an essential step that will make or break a term paper.
Look for an Essay Topic Among Your Interests
One of the first ways students can lay the foundation for a successful literature term paper is to look for essay topics among their interests. Especially if you're given the freedom to come up with your own topic, it is important that it interests you enough to write about it.
Instructors often provide a list of sample or suggested essay topics, to help students select the topics of their term papers. If you have an interest in a suggested topic, don't copy it without putting your own spin on it. Teachers will be looking for extra insight on the topics they suggest, and have read many mediocre essays on those subjects, year after year.
Another way of thinking about your interests is looking at what you enjoyed in the course so far. (Even if nothing was much fun, it is at least helpful to rule out what does not interest you.) Suppose you are taking a general course on European literature – which national literature was your favorite? Why was it your favorite?
Turning a General Essay Topic Into a Specific Term Paper Topic
If you liked nineteenth-century Russian literature because of its focus on religious themes, you may already have the beginnings of a research topic: "Religion in nineteenth-century Russian literature."
However, this is far too general – a writer could spend his whole career on this topic, and not cover all its possibilities. Most students only have a few weeks. But many leave their topics this broad, which dooms their essays to superficiality.
To come up with a more manageable essay topic, make each part of your general topic/interest more specific. To go back to the above example, you could try "Christianity in the Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky," which is better, but still daunting. Better still would be something like "The act of confession in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment." Notice how the topic gets more and more focused throughout this process:
- Religion – Christianity – Confession
- Eighteenth-Century Russian Literature – The Novels of Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
But a Good Essay Topic is Only the First Step
Once you decide upon a specific topic for a literature term paper, you've completed the first step in tackling the researching and writing of the paper itself. The next part of the process is to explore the research questions which the essay topic presents.