Writing about Literature

The Writing Process

Getting Started

Identifying Topics

When an assignment allows you to create your own topic, you will much more likely build a lively and engaging essay from a particular insight or question that captures your attention and makes you want to say something, solve a problem, or stake out a position. The best papers originate in an individual response to a text and focus on a genuine question about it. Even when an instructor assigns a topic, the effectiveness of your essay will largely depend on whether or not you have made the topic your own, turning it into a question to which you discover your own answer.

Often we refer to "finding" a topic, as if there are a bevy of topics "out there" just waiting to be plucked like ripe fruit off the topic-tree. In at least two ways, that’s true. For one thing, as we read a literary work, certain topics often do jump out and say, "Hey, look at me! I’m a topic!" A title alone may have that effect: What rises and converges in "Everything That Rises Must Converge"? Why is Keats so keen on that darn nightingale; what does it symbolize for him? Why does Wilde think it’s important not to be earnest?

For another thing, certain general topics can be adapted to fit almost any literary work. In fact, that’s just another way of saying that there are certain common types (or subgenres) of literary essays, just as there are of short stories, plays, and poems. For example, one very common kind of literary essay explores the significance of a seemingly insignificant aspect or element of a work—a word or group of related words, an image or image-cluster, a minor character, an incident or action, and so on. Equally common are character-focused essays of three types. The first explores the outlook or worldview of a character and its consequences. The second considers the way a major character develops from the beginning of a literary work to its end. The third analyzes the nature and significance of a conflict between two characters (or two groups of characters) and the way this conflict is ultimately resolved. (Many of the arguments about Antigone excerpted in chapter 31 do this.) Especially when you’re utterly befuddled about where to begin, it can be very useful to keep in mind these generic topics and essay types and to use them as starting points. But remember that they are just starting points. One always has to adapt and narrow a generic topic such as "imagery" or "character change" in order to produce an effective essay. In practice, then, no writer simply "finds" a topic; he or she makes one.

Similarly, though the topic that leaps out at you immediately might end up being the one you find most interesting, you can only discover that by giving yourself some options. It’s always a good idea to initially come up with as many topics as you can. Test out various topics to see which one will work best. Making yourself identify multiple topics will lead you to think harder, look more closely, and reach deeper into yourself and the work.

Here are some additional techniques to identify potential topics. In each case, write your thoughts down. Don’t worry at this point about what form your writing takes or how good it is.

  • Analyze your initial response.
    If you’ve chosen a text that you feel strongly about, start with those responses. Try to describe your feelings and trace them to their source. Be as specific as possible. What moments, aspects, or elements of the text most affected you? Exactly how and why did they affect you? What was most puzzling? amusing? annoying? intriguing? Try to articulate the question behind your feelings. Often, strong responses result when a work either challenges or affirms an expectation, assumption, or conviction that you, the reader, bring to the work. Think about whether and how that’s true here. Define the specific expectation, assumption, or conviction. How, where, and why does the text challenge it? fulfill and affirm it? Which of your responses and expectations are objectively valid, likely to be shared by other readers?

  • Think through the elements.
    Start with a list of elements and work your way through them, thinking about what’s unique or interesting or puzzling about the text in terms of each. When it comes to tone, what stands out? What about the speaker? the situation? other elements? Come up with a statement about each. Look for patterns among your statements. Also, think about the questions implied or overlooked by your statements.

  • Pose motive questions.
    In articulating a motive in your essay’s introduction, your concern is primarily with the readers, your goal being to give them a solid reason to keep on reading. But you can often work your way toward a topic (or topics) by considering motive. As suggested earlier (33.3.1), there are three common motives. Turn each one into a question in order to identify potential topics:
  1. What element(s) or aspect(s) of this work might a casual reader misinterpret?

  2. What interesting paradox(es), contradiction(s), or tension(s) do you see in this text?

  3. What seemingly minor, insignificant, easily ignored element(s) or aspect(s) of this text might in fact have major significance?

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