Fear of the Blank Page: Topic Development by Ariana Turiansky

posted Oct 11, 2016, 11:02 AM by Writing Center

The blank page can be a scary place. When we don’t know where to start it often makes us feel like we have writer’s block. Starting research papers is a difficult task you’ll face in writing, especially if it’s up to you to choose the topic and direction. However, there are strategies you can use to prompt the first sentence or idea that goes on the page. I’m going to present some suggestions that I have found work for students to help make the process of choosing and narrowing a topic a bit less stressful.

Perhaps I am a product of my generation, but I believe in the facilitative qualities of Wikipedia. As a teacher, students often seem shocked when I recommend that they browse through Wikipedia to discover a topic or to find connections to their topic.

Say I want to write on the topic of violence and video games because it interests me, or I have personal experience with it. Where do I start? Claiming that video games cause violence is simply too broad. You could write a book on that topic. There is so much information on video games out there that it seems impossible to narrow it down. Enter Wikipedia. 

A quick search for video game violence brings up a report page with hyperlinks and an outline of what the report covers, including pros and cons of video games. Topics covered immediately include race and video games, gender and video games, criminal activity and video games, etc. This Wikipedia page details the background, current and historical events, and positions surrounding the topic. It also links to more academic sources. You might find that one of these interests you and piques your attention. You can then go into your library databases or the Internet using these new keywords. Try searching, perhaps, for video games and gender violence, or racism and video games, or others. 

Wikipedia and Google searches are great ways to work on topic search and development. Even the Google function that suggests phrases based on a word you type in can be helpful in providing ideas of what people associate with your topic. What you end up with is the most relevant headlines.

Other ways of developing topics include keeping a journal and noting what you engage in conversation about. Often, the things we talk about with our friends and peers in everyday encounters are the things we find interesting or controversial. Keeping a written journal of thoughts and ideas is a good resource. Even the work you do for other classes (journals, writing exercises, etc.) can be a source of ideas for a research paper, particularly if they are within your major/interests. 

Once you have a second-level topic such as videogames and gender violence, you can create a web, bubble chart, or map (all are similar) where you place your topic in the middle and create associations outward. Within this chart, you can ask questions, note examples, and break video games and gender violence, for example, down into even narrower topics. This might bring up questions like, How do video games affect men’s perspectives of women, or vice versa? Gender can be narrowed down into male or female. Video games can be narrowed down to examine games with certain objectives or even a particular game.

While resources like Wikipedia are dangerous when used for later research because they are subjective and open to contributor error, they are good resources for reviewing background information and expanding your perception of your topic. Think of it as a jumping off point for your legitimate research. You don’t have to do all your topic development from scratch. There are many compilations of information that can assist you.