Choosing a Topic

The research essay is one of the most important skills that students must develop during their university careers. Essays are a major part of the written work assigned to students in History, and this web site will attempt to address the key questions and concerns of students when approaching the research and writing of these papers.

Firstly it must be noted that effective academic writing is not an innate skill or ability, but rather one that takes time and practice to develop. Writing clearly and crafting a logical, convincing argument that makes the best use of available sources is the basic goal – and simplicity of style can often enhance the effectiveness of that argument. Writing assignments in History may take any of several forms, including: the research essay, the book review, the comparative book review, the annotated bibliography, and the simple reading note, to name a few. While the structure of the paper may differ in each of these cases, the aim of the writer should nevertheless remain the balanced presentation of suitable sources in order to develop and defend a central argument supported by strong conclusions.

The student may consider the process of researching, organizing, and preparing the essay as similar to the prosecution of a case before a jury of one’s peers in a court of law. The familiarity of the courtroom drama makes a useful parallel for the process of writing a research essay. A case must be investigated, evidence must be collected, weighed, and organized, and a clearly articulated argument must be presented to an audience that will ultimately decide the merits of the author’s case.

The best essays state their aims at the outset, through the provision of a clear introduction in which the author’s thesis, or argument, is presented to the reader. Following this opening argument, a good essay develops point-by-point, in a logical fashion, and introduces relevant, supportive evidence. Each of these points typically constitutes a subsection of the argument, and by organizing them in a straightforward manner, the intended effect should be to carry the reader along with the argument. Finally, after linking these points together, the essay must propose a conclusion or conclusions supportive of the initial thesis. At this stage, the reader must decide whether the author’s research, the presentation of his or her evidence, and the formulation of his or her argument have effectively supported the central thesis of the paper.

Choosing a Topic

Often, students face difficulty in choosing a topic because of the wide variety of possible subjects at hand. Some instructors will issue a list of suggested topics in order to facilitate this process, but the student may feel free to consider another topic and obtain the instructors’ permission to pursue it instead. When choosing a topic, a few things should be considered.

  • Is the topic manageable? If it is too broad, the instructor may recommend that the student narrow down the investigation to permit the formulation of a useful, manageable argument.
  • Is there adequate source material available? Consider that an obvious or especially popular topic may put a strain on available library resources, and that a particularly obscure topic may yield very few sources at all. Well documented subjects will often provide the author with a wealth of sources.
  • Is the topic credible? The student should be careful to avoid sensationalist topics, and should focus upon topics that can be dealt with historically. For example, where a theologian might ask “Does God exist?” or a scientist might ask “Can the development of the universe be explained without invoking the concept of God?” the historian asks a very different question: “How did belief (or disbelief) in God shape the actions of this particular person or group?” or “How did new scientific ideas affect religious institutions in this particular time and place?” Finding an angle of historical inquiry often involves asking how and why particular events or circumstances influenced individuals and their societies.
  • Above all, what interests you? Review the instructor’s lectures, the texts involved, and any supporting course materials. World History courses are indeed broad, but there will undoubtedly be several subject areas that pique your curiosity. Speak to your instructor and/or teaching assistant if you are experiencing difficulty choosing a topic. They will advise you.