Choosing and Interpreting an Essay Topic

  • What’s the best way to get started on an essay?
  • What methods can be used to interpret an essay topic?
  • Why is it important to have an essay plan, and what are some simple ways to construct an essay plan?

Too many students start writing their essays without really having an idea of where they’re going. For a tertiary-level essay, you can’t rely on just writing something off the top of your head, nor can you rely on one text or just your lecture notes. There are no short cuts, so don’t place yourself in a situation where you are desperate enough to try to find them. The key to writing a good essay is to have a good plan. Your plan may change over time as you do more research or begin to write up your notes, but all good essays start with a clear plan. Spending time on this stage of the writing process will actually save you time later, because you will have clarified what your essay is about, what information you need to find and what the basic structure of your essay should be.

Many subjects offer you a range of essay topics to choose from. If this is the case, try to choose a topic that will keep your interest throughout the writing of the essay. It is difficult to select a topic when you know very little about it. To see whether you are interested in an essay topic, you can either wait for the related topic to be covered in the lecture, or you can do some preliminary reading, usually from your textbook or a list of references if provided. If this doesn’t help, go to the library and look up some information on the topic. The key thing to keep in mind is the importance of knowing what the essay topic is about before you choose it. Don’t choose a topic simply because it looks easy. Some essay topics will be more applied, while others will be more theoretical, but all this is taken into account when the essay is marked. Go through the preparatory stage of finding out about an essay topic first, so that you don’t start working on it only to find later that you hate it and have to change the topic mid-stream.

Once you have chosen a topic, it’s time to plan your course of action. There are three stages to planning an essay:

  1. The pre-plan
  2. Brainstorming ideas
  3. Developing your argument.

Stage 1: The pre-plan: interpreting and limiting the scope of a topic

Once you have selected an essay topic, and before you develop a full essay plan, you need to do a pre-plan—that is, some basic preparatory work. The pre-plan involves interpreting the question and doing some preliminary reading on the topic to develop a basic understanding of the issues your essay should cover. Your lecture notes, textbook or prescribed reading list are the best places to start. At this stage, don’t read extensively; leave this until after you have an essay plan.The pre-plan involves three interrelated parts: command words, keywords and essay scope.

Command words

Essay questions will often have command words, such as ‘discuss’, ‘compare’ or ‘analyse’, which direct the approach you should take to the topic. For example:

Discuss the socioeconomic status of indigenous people in two countries.
Note that some essay questions will limit or direct you to specific areas. As the above example shows, not only are you asked to discuss the topic, but you are directed and limited to two countries. However, a word of caution is necessary here. While most command words are quite straightforward, sometimes they are used inconsistently, whereby some lecturers may have different things in mind when they use words such as ‘discuss’, ‘compare’ or ‘analyse’. If in doubt, check with your lecturer or tutor about what the essay is expected to cover.


Keywords refer to concepts, authors and theories relevant to a particular academic discipline. The next part of the pre-plan stage is to highlight, circle or underline any keywords in the essay topic which need to be defined and explained. For example, the following terms may appear in humanities and social science essays:

  • class
  • cultural capital
  • ethnocentrism
  • modernity
  • post-feminism
  • sexual division of labour.

To find out what these keywords mean, start with a discipline dictionary, which is a specialised dictionary that defines keywords—concepts, theories and sometimes the ideas of key authors—for a particular discipline. For example, there are dictionaries for the disciplines of economics, education, sociology, literature, politics and psychology, to name only a few.

Try to stick to the discipline dictionaries for defining keywords and avoid using literal definitions of words from English dictionaries such as the Oxford or Macquarie dictionaries. The reason for this is that you need to understand how the particular discipline defines the keywords, because often they have more complex and specific meanings than standard dictionaries allow. For example, an English dictionary definition of the words ‘cultural capital’ could define ‘cultural’ (social customs and values governing human behaviour) and ‘capital’ (a sum of money saved). However, such a definition would be incorrect, as it ignores the meaning of the phrase within the disciplines of sociology, education and cultural studies. Cultural capital is a concept that refers to the possession of valued cultural attributes that can act like an economic asset which bestows social status and provides access to various social privileges.

While discipline dictionaries are helpful, your understanding shouldn’t be based on these alone, as the meanings of specific terms are often subject to debate and are more complex than a few lines in a dictionary can allow. Introductory texts are also a good place to start to give you a basic understanding of keywords.

Essay scope: Who, what, where, when and why/how

Once you have defined and understood your command words and keywords, it is important that you use these words as a guide to your research and reading. You may find that there is so much information or so many issues involved in the essay topic that it is impossible for you to cover them all adequately within the word limit you are given. In such cases, without changing the meaning of the essay topic, it maybeacceptableforyoutonarrowthescopeofwhatyou will cover in the essay. For example, this may mean concentrating on issues that apply to one country only, or comparing two opposing theories. However, always check with your lecturer or tutor that this is acceptable.To keep your academic detective work on the right track, you need to clarify the scope of your essay topic by addressing ‘who, what, where, when and why/how’ questions, such as:

  • Who: Who is your intended audience?
  • What: How detailed does your information need to be?
  • Where: Do you need to make comparisons between regions or countries?
  • When: Do you need to address historical and/or current issues?
  • Why/how: Are explanations required?

Unless directed otherwise, an essential feature of all your essays is to address the ‘why’ or ‘how’ question. Your ability to explain why or how something exists is where you will gain higher marks. Answering ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions requires you to analyse your material.

One of the key ways to determine the scope of your essay is to ensure that your essays contain the information, debates and theories that are relevant to the subject and discipline you are studying. For example, if you are doing sociology and psychology subjects, don’t try to rehash your psychology material for your sociology essay unless it is particularly relevant. While many topics cross over discipline boundaries, it is much simpler to stick to identified books and journal articles within the one discipline. Here is a simple rule to follow: if it is a politics subject, use politics texts; if it is an economics subject, use economics texts. In other words, always write for your intended audience. This will ensure that you have covered the material that is relevant to the topic. Note that if you are undertaking interdisciplinary studies, you should have a clear understanding of the literature and issues you are meant to address in your essay.

Stage 2: Brainstorming and mapping out your plan

Once you have completed the pre-plan stage and have a general understanding of the topic, the next stage is to make a written plan of what you need to include in your essay. Start with a blank sheet of paper and brainstorm anything that comes to mind regarding the topic—all the ideas, issues, theories, arguments and evidence you are aware of. This is called visualisation: by writing down what you know on paper, you will start to clarify and organise the information in your head and be able to decide what you will do with it. You may alter, modify, add to or reject various aspects after further reading, but brainstorming allows you to go over the basic ideas your essay will cover. If you find you have little to go on, do some further reading and then have another go at brainstorming. There are two ways of documenting your brainstorming, one of which should suit you:

  1. the linear plan
  2. mind mapping.

The linear plan

The linear plan involves writing your essay plan in the order it will appear in your essay. The limitation of the linear method is that you might get stuck on which order the various sections should go in. The alternative technique, mind mapping, overcomes this limitation.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping documents your brainstorming in a creative and diagrammatic way. It suits some people better than others, as it involves an uncensored and initially unstructured flow of ideas from your mind to paper. To start your mind map, write your essay topic in a ‘bubble’ in the centre of a blank page.

Then think about what you need to include in the essay—not in any particular order, but just as it occurs to you—and write it in a bubble radiating from the central idea.

Keep adding these ‘bubbles’ until you have everything that needs to be covered in the essay somewhere on the page. Now you can study your mind map and think about the best logical sequence for your essay. Number the bubbles to put the sections in sequence.

As mentioned earlier, this technique will appeal to some people, while others will prefer a linear plan. The advantage of mind mapping is that you separate the creative activity from the editing activity, and this saves you time by allowing the creative juices to flow uninterrupted. Once you have formed an outline of what you want to say, it is time to consider your argument and begin to research the various sections.

Stage 3: Start developing your argument

Most essay questions ask you to take a stance: Do you agree or disagree? Which theory best explains the evidence? The stance that you take is called your argument, or sometimes it is referred to as the theme of the essay. Whatever approach you take, you may want to modify your theme or argument as you do more reading. It may even be acceptable not to take sides, but to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in the various debates you cover. However, the approach you have taken in answering the question must be clear from your introduction onwards. Otherwise, the reader of your essay may be confused as to what you are trying to prove or argue.