Writing Well

Subjects vs. Topics

So now you have a subject, and it's a lulu. The only problem is size—this baby's as big as a 747. So you narrow the subject into a topic by finding smaller aspects of the topic within the subject area to use as the basis of your research paper. First, let's make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to subjects and topics.

Word Watch

A subject of a research paper is the general content. A topic is the specific issue being discussed.

Write Angles

Your teacher likes your topic, your parents like your topic, your buddies like your topic. Even your dog likes your topic. The problem? You don't like your topic. So get a new topic!

A subject of a research paper is the general content. Subjects are broad and general. For example:

  • Health
  • Television
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Travel

The topic of a research paper, in contrast, is the specific issue being discussed. Here are some possible topics for a research paper developed from the previous subjects:

  • Health
    assessing fad diets
    arguing the merits of AIDS testing of health care workers
  • Television
    arguing for or against the V-chip in televisions
    taking a side in the cable wars
  • Stocks and bonds
    showing that day trading is profitable (or not)
    persuading readers to use e-trades rather than brokers (or vice versa)
  • Travel
    arguing that surcharges for solo travelers are unfair
    arguing the merits of e-tickets

Consider all facets of your subject as you develop topics. You may wish to speak to other people about the subject or just let your mind free-associate. Let those ideas bubble up!

Cut Down to Size

To get that beast of a subject tailored to an appropriate size, try phrasing the subject as a question. You can also list subdivisions of the subject to create topics. Can't find subtopics? Consult card catalogues, reference books, and textbooks for ideas. Here are some examples:

SubjectTopic
space explorationShould the space program be drastically cut back?
social servicesIs workfare working?
violenceDo violent video games, movies, and songs influence children to commit violence?
antidepressantsAre antidepressants being over-prescribed?
intelligenceIs intelligence determined by nature or nurture?

Goldywriter and the Three Bears

So the porridge is too hot, the porridge is too cold. How can you make sure the porridge—and your topic—is just right? Try this checklist:

  • Is my topic still too broad? Check your sources. How many pages do they devote to the topic? If it takes other writers a book to answer the question you've posed, your topic is still too big.
  • Is my topic too limited? Is the topic perfect for a 350- to 500-word essay? If so, it's too narrow for the typical research paper.
  • Is my topic tedious? Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. If your topic bores you before you've even started writing, you can bet it will bore your audience.
  • Is my topic too controversial? If you're afraid you're going to offend your audience with your topic, don't take the risk. Start with a new topic that suits both your audience and purpose.
  • Is my paper one-sided? If there's only one opinion about your topic or the vast majority of people think the same way as you do, there's no point in arguing the issue. Save your breath to cool your porridge.

Here's where the rubber meets the road, you driving machine. You can't cut corners with this stage; answer all the questions to make sure you're on the right track.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.