Writing an essay is a challenging undertaking. You have to research, take notes, write an outline, and then turn that outline into a rough draft. Finally, you have to repeatedly edit and refine your rough draft until it becomes a suitable final draft. It can take hours, even days, to complete an essay.
Of course, before any of this can happen, you need to come up with a great topic. It may seem like a simple task, but if you cannot think of an essay idea, you can’t even get off the starting blocks. So, what do you do when you are stuck and can’t think of anything to write about?
Here are 5 ways in which you can help yourself come up with a great essay idea.
Before you start a brainstorming session, remember that there is one rule. No idea is cast aside as being silly, too complex, not complex enough, too far off topic, etc. You can always pare down your list later on. It's better to jot down a few flops now, than it is to ignore an idea that might turn into something brilliant. A pen and paper may be all you need to get started, but a note-taking app like Evernote can help organize your ideas.
Brainstorming in a group is a bit different. Try Dragon Dictation, which records and transcribes your conversations as you bounce ideas off one another. Google Docs can save documents to the cloud so that everyone can access the list when it is time to make decisions. You will find that as you get into a brainstorming session, the ideas will come quickly.
2. Free Writing
Free writing is a stream-of-consciousness exercise where you simply write down whatever comes into your mind. We recommend making the process a little more disciplined. Rather than writing about anything, stick with a general subject area that is defined on the subject you are in studying in class.
As you start free writing, you may be surprised at the number of thoughts you have on the subject you are covering, and the amount of knowledge you have retained. Eventually, as you free write, you will see your writing become more and more focused. This is an excellent sign that you are narrowing in on the specific topic idea for your essay. Even better, as you free write, you may come up with a few things that you can paste almost directly into your essay.
3. Look at Your Life Story
What do you know that other people do not? What things do you understand that the average person does not understand? Do you have any relevant experience or special knowledge when it comes to the subject?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you might be a step ahead of the game when it comes to figuring out the best essay topic for you. Something you know how to do or that you understand can be a great topic for a process essay. An experience you had can be fodder for a narrative essay. It gives you a unique point of view. Just don't allow yourself to show too much bias, or to ignore evidence in favor of your personal story. As a bonus, you will notice you will write much more quickly when you are relating a story from your life.
4. Go Back to Your Textbook
You have probably learned that the best way to study for tests and quizzes is to focus on the subheadings, bullet points, chapter questions, pictures, and graphs. If you are trying to come up with a good essay topic, you should also review these. They will remind you which elements are most important.
If you write your essay on something that is emphasized in your textbook, there is a pretty good chance you are on the right track. You will know that your topic is relevant, and you can impress your instructor by displaying your in-depth knowledge on that topic.
5. If You are Desperate, Go with a Generic Essay Topic
The truth is this: you may not come up with a brilliant essay idea each time you are given a writing assignment. However, that does not mean you cannot write an excellent paper. You can still write an essay that is well researched, thoughtful, and carefully written.
Plenty of essays are written by students who earn excellent grades, but are not very excited by the topic they have chosen. It’s better to write an essay on a less exciting topic than to turn it in late because you spent too much time searching for the “wow” factor.