It’s easier than you think.

Ah, the beginning of college.  The start of a whole new world.

Living away from home, cafeteria food (or not) and learning to navigate the complicated nuances of a social life on a whole new level.

And that’s not even touching the actual, you know, school part of things.

Amid all of the chaos and whirlwind of modern college life, you may be tempted to take shortcuts in your academic journey.  One of those shortcuts may be buying a paper off your buddy, or off the internet from one of these “academic writing sites”.  It’s a tempting idea:  you could buy that paper on the analysis of feminism in Pride and Prejudice and still make that fraternity kegger on Friday night.  Win-win, right?

Well, um, no, not so much.  Buying an academic paper that was written by someone else with the intention of passing it off as your own is a really bad idea.  It’s plagiarism and it has severe consequences,  of which I am sure your instructor has informed you. Plagiarism is bad, bad news. You want to avoid it at all costs.    

“But how can I write a paper on _____________ in, like, 2 days?!?!?!” you lament. “I cannot do this and have any kind of life!” you wail.  “The struggle is real!!” you exclaim.  

I hear you. I used to be a writing instructor at a university. I heard the same thing all the time from my students.  I understand that the struggle is indeed real.

Fortunately for you, writing a paper is easier than you think. There is work involved, but most of that takes place in your brain as you think about ideas and how to put them together.

But before we get to that point, you first need a topic idea. So, how do you pick a topic idea?

There are a lot of ways, but really it comes down to two things: your interests within the assignment parameters and paper length.

The Topic Two-Step

When I was a writing instructor, I had regular writing conferences with my students, often one-on-one. I repeatedly heard the same thing “I don’t know what to write about!!!” If this is you, fret not. Here is how you figure that out.

writing on pad of paper beside computer
Firmbee via Pixabay


1. Look at your interests in comparison to the assignment.

Let’s say you’re in a physics course and your prof wants you to write about something about black holes. Look back on the course lecture/discussion on black holes. There should be something, anything, about that discussion that sparked your interest (or else you wouldn’t be in the class). If you can’t think of a single thing at all, try brainstorming. Get out a sheet of paper and write the words “Black Hole” at the top. Then write down everything you can think of about black holes for two solid minutes. That should juice some creative spark. When you get an idea, go research it and see what you can find on it. If you like the idea and can find enough research, go for it!

2. Paper length.

This tends to surprise some people because it seems like a no-brainer. But it’s amazing how many students don’t really take paper length into consideration when coming up with a topic. The paper length often determines the “scope” of your paper. In other words, how long your paper has to be can determine how in-depth your topic should be to meet the requirements of the course.

For example, let’s say that you need to write a paper with a maximum five-page limit. You choose “cancer” as your topic. Cancer is a hugely complicated and complex subject. You can’t really get in-depth with hardly anything on cancer in a 5-page paper. But you could focus on a single type of cancer. Or maybe give a brief overview of cancer funding and its politics. Or maybe discuss the pros and cons of a particular type of treatment. See what I’m going for here? A five-page paper on cancer is, well, boring. It doesn’t tell anyone much and doesn’t give out much information at all because it’s simply not long enough. You could write a 100-page paper and still not cover everything about cancer. But a five-page paper on the benefits of a bone marrow transplant for treating leukemia? That could be interesting indeed.

A little side note here: as a former writing instructor, do your professor a solid and try your best to pick interesting, original and insightful topics. It becomes very tiresome to read the same old papers about the same trusted topics semester after semester. Shake things up and do something different. Trust me—your professor will appreciate it.

jumping in the sunset
Jill111 via Pixabay



So there you have it. Two easy-peasy-squeeze-the-lemon ways of picking a great paper topic. If you consider your own interests within the parameters of the assignment and consider page length when choosing a topic, you will write an original, more interesting paper. This could surprise and impress your professor, but most of all, you did it all by yourself—no plagiarism needed.

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