How to Get Started Writing an Essay and Choosing a Topic

Essays are going to be assigned to you during your time at school, whether you like it or not. You likely wrote one to get into your university or college, and you’ve probably already written a ton of them in high school. However, university and college level essays are a step up from your high school papers.

Not only are they longer, but they’re often more complex and your professors are expecting a lot more from you than your high school teachers ever did. That can be a really scary thing. Especially given the fact that most university professors don’t provide you with an outline or clear instructions on how to write essays.

In this essay writing guide, we’ll give you the tools you need to turn in a paper that will not only impress your professors, but yourself as well.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, learning the right elements of an essay and how to properly write one can help you get better grades.

We’re going to walk you through every step you need to take while you write your paper, from coming up with a great idea to knowing what to look for in the editing process. By the time you finish this, you’re going to feel so prepared and ready to take on any challenges.

Before You Get Started

There are a few things you need to remember before you start writing your essay. It’s important to take the time to treat every single paper like it’s worth 100% of your grade.

Firstly, don’t start everything the night before your paper is due. You hear this all the time, but it’s absolutely true. Leaving everything until the last minute leads to rushing and leaving out critical information. You may run into situations such as skimming through sources to get random snippets of information instead of the most vital components, that could turn your argument around. Additionally, your professors can tell which students have done this, and while you may not end up with a failing grade, you likely won’t end up with the grade you truly could have received if you put the time and effort into it.

Secondly, stay disciplined and on track. Charles Dickens once said, “Procrastination is the thief of time.” When it comes to writing your essay, time is definitely of the essence.

Give yourself the right amount of time to complete your essay, and get yourself in the zone. Good writing takes focus and practice. You know about your essays and assignments for the semester as soon as you get your syllabus during the first week of classes. While it may not have the detailed instructions, this will at least let you know when your paper is due, and gives you time to prepare for it step by step.

Start thinking about topics, arguments, and sources as soon as possible and carve out a little bit of time each day to work on it. The more you go back and revisit your writing, the more you can see areas for improvement.

Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you don’t get the grade you thought you deserved, talk to your professor. Read the comments that they leave when they mark your papers, and learn from your mistakes. Find out where you can improve for your next paper. Life is all about learning and growing, and the best way to do this is to try. As George R.R. Martin wrote in his award-winning book A Game of Thrones, “A bruise is a lesson… and each lesson makes us better.”

Choosing Your Topic

When it comes to writing an essay, no matter what type of essay you’re writing, you need to start with a good topic. Sometimes this will be given to you by your professor in the essay instructions, and other times you’ll have to come up with something on your own.

If you are fortunate enough to come up with your own topic, it should be something you’re passionate about, or at least a topic that interests you. Do you really want to spend the next few weeks reading articles about a topic you could care less about? No, of course not. So, pick something you want to learn more about and you’ll actually be interested in the research component.

When you’re stuck choosing a topic, go back through your readings and class notes and look for a topic that interests you that was covered during a lecture or in your textbook. If you’re still in doubt, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask your professor or TA for advice or suggestions. Your professor has likely taught this class many times before, and has seen a variety of topics and ideas come through in students’ essays. They’re more likely to be enthusiastic about fresh new ideas instead of the same topics over and over again from past years, and will be able to give you some good places to start.

The right essay topic can’t be too broad. For example, if you’re asked to write a paper about a social issue, you can’t just pick climate change or gun control and write a paper about that. It’s impossible to make a strong thesis statement for a topic that’s overly general and broad, and therefore it’s hard to formulate a good argument. Here’s another example: you can’t possibly narrow down a paper on World War II to eight pages, but you can if you focus on a topic such as how aerial warfare changed the way that the war was fought.

You need to get down to the basis of the topic and formulate a research question from there. If your topic is too broad, you’ll have a hard time writing and arguing about it. Instead, with a broad topic, your paper will just be filled with generic information that doesn’t actually make a point about anything except for giving your reader regurgitated information from various sources.

How to Narrow Down a Broad Topic

Figuring out how to narrow down your broad topic can be difficult. However, this is an important step to take when you’re getting your paper ready for writing. You can’t possibly do all of your research effectively until you know the specific topic you’re working with.

Do a little bit of initial research about your topic. It doesn’t have to be the same collection of research or sources you’re going to use in the paper itself, but you should get an idea of what experts, scholars, and researchers have written about your topic. Even if you just do a bit of searching on Google or Google Scholar, you’ll start to get an idea of the different arguments that are out there to give you an idea of what direction you want to go with your paper.

It doesn’t hurt to check out some blogs, too. Of course, you’re not going to be using someone’s blog as a scholarly source in your paper, but it’s a good idea to check out the opinions other people have formed about the topic. What arguments are those people making that you could research further?

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you’re trying to break down a topic to come up with a narrow thesis statement:

  • Why should your audience care about this topic? Why do YOU care about this topic? If you don’t care about your topic, why should anyone else care about it? You need to be able to prove there’s value in talking about this subject. If you don’t see that value, you may want to consider finding a new topic altogether.
  • What is your opinion on this topic, and how would you argue this in a conversation with a friend? If you can formulate an opinion about the topic, it’ll be easier to find research that lines up with your arguments.
  • What comes to mind when you think about your topic? Even the smallest keywords could help you make meaningful connections or help you start to think about why you would want to talk about this in the first place.
  • What smaller questions could you ask about this topic? These could form potential research questions that translate to supporting arguments.
  • What are others saying about this topic? As stated above, you can do some initial Google research to see if there are articles published on this topic and figure out what conclusions others have made. Don’t copy word for word what those people have said, but see if you can find some good viewpoints that could be a good starting point.
  • What specific words can I add that would make this more focused? For example, if you can add words such as “the evolution of” or “the effects of,” you can break down your topic more effectively.
  • What kind of questions should my audience have? You want to get your audience thinking and leave them with something to take away.


There are plenty of ways you can start brainstorming about your topic in order to get an idea of what type of arguments you want to include in your essay. Start with your central topic, even if it’s really broad. Then branch out and see how many topics and words you can come up with on your own before you do any research. After that, do a quick Google search (even Wikipedia will do at this stage), and see what other terms and ideas you can find.

Once everything is out on paper in your mind map, it’ll be easier to start making connections between the ideas that came to your mind and the research you’ve found. Think about those connections, why those specific keywords came to your mind, and what questions you could ask about them that could formulate some type of argument.

Let’s say you’re writing a paper about music history. Start by breaking down the genres of music and everything that comes to mind about each of those genres, even if they’re just abstract thoughts or basic keywords connected to the theme. Then, figure out how you can work those keywords into something that forms an argument or research topic.

From here, you can take a look at how you formed the beginning of a narrowed-down topic and potential argument. For example, you could choose jazz music in the 1920s and focus on how Louis Armstrong changed the music style to impact future generations. Or, you could choose to focus on how jazz music was connected with race or cultural divisions. For any of these genres, you could think about how early versions have transcended into influencing modern generations, such as how The Beatles transformed rock music and influenced other important bands.