choosing a paper topic

The ACE Method for Choosing a Paper Topic

One of the biggest problems students report with college writing assignments is choosing a paper topic. In college, you’re expected to pick your own topic, most of the time – but most college students have never had the training in how to do that. In high school, they were always provided with a topic and told to write about it, even if it bored them to tears or just wasn’t interesting. And if it isn’t interesting, it’s just natural to put off writing the paper until the last minute – but that always leads to a worse grade.

The ACE method changes all that, and it’s really simple to do.

Think about the topic of your class. What has made you angry about this topic? What has made you curious about this topic? What has made you excited about this topic?

  • “Angry” topics tend to lean towards “This is a problem that needs to be solved. I’m going to find three ways (or five ways) to solve it, and present that to my audience.” When you write this kind of paper, you’re being an advocate or an activist. You want people to get fired up and do something about the problem, so in this case, choosing a paper topic means finding something that fires you up too.
  • “Curious” topics tend to lean towards “This is something that needs to be explained, so that we understand it better. I’m going to explain this topic to my audience.” When you write this kind of paper, you’re being a scientist. You want people to come away with a better understanding of how something works, so choosing a paper topic means finding something you want to explain for yourself, too.
  • “Excited” topics tend to lean towards “this is something that everyone needs to know about, so I have to find a way to tell them!” When you write this kind of paper, you’re being a salesperson. You want to get other people just as excited about the topic as you are, so choosing a paper topic here means you need something that excites you, too.

Pick one of those things, and you have your paper topic.

The advantage of this method is that you’ll be personally invested in the topic, instead of bored with one you were assigned. If you’re personally invested in something, you’re more likely to work on it and get it done.

For example, let’s say you’re taking a class on urban sociology. After a few weeks of lectures and learning, you should be able to identify at least one thing from the lectures and readings that makes you angry, curious, or excited. You might be angry about the slums and how people there have to live. You might be curious about where the suburbs came from and how they developed. And you might be excited about how particular cities get “known” for particular kinds of industries or products. Any one of these is an excellent paper topic, isn’t it?

The other great thing about this method is that you only need to pick one topic for your paper. But now, if you have more papers to write, you have two other things that you know you’re interested in. Build a “paper topics list” out of the topics you don’t use right now. You might need them next semester!

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