Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Formulating a Topic

There is no “correct” way to choose an essay topic, because history is a subject in which there are no right answers. Writing essays certainly has more an inherent element of opinion present then answering equations ever will. However there are a few pertinent points to keep in mind.

In general history essays examine a specific topic

This is why professors ask for a clear and concise thesis statement, as this allows the essay to stay on one cohesive and comprehensive subject. The range of subject that could be examined by a historian are nearly infinite, but time and space constraints and limitations on the amount of information that can be synthesized at once mean that the volume of information covered in one essay is necessarily limited. The information covered in your essay should be limited to that necessary to prove you point. If it helps think of the thesis statement as being a summary of what the essay will be about (for instance “This essay will examine the change in women’s roles that came about due to Britain’s industrial revolution”) and the essay beyond that as providing the evidence necessary to cement your conclusion on the same subject (e.g. “As this essay has shown, on the whole British women used the Industrial Revolution as a means of emancipation”). Thesis and concluding statements don’t always need to be grammatically structured in the same way, but they always have to serve the same functions as outlined above. You shouldn’t include extraneous information in your essay (i.e. a passage about China which has nothing to do with the conclusion presented). You should keep your essay specific to  one topic, rather than delivering say, an essay about Women in and Industrial Britain, and Mechanization in Industrial Britain (unless both your coverage of both these subjects form your unified conclusion).

The topic covered must be presented as an argument

No professor will ever ask you to assemble an essay which generically lists “historical facts”, such as the dates of famous battles, birthdates of prime ministers etc. Instead your professor will ask you to assemble relevant facts to form an argument which catalogues cause and effect in some way (cause and effect is the essence of History). For instance no-one could write an argumentative essay about which day John A. Macdonald was born, because that is simply a historical fact. However someone could argue that the facts show that John A. Macdonald actually had a minor role in making confederation come about, because the latter is a matter of opinion. In other words you may not always be able to argue about what happened in history (there are exceptions to this) but you can always argue about why it happened.

Choose something that interests you

History students sometimes neglect to choose topics that interest them, believing either A) This is a pointless endeavour because history is always boring, or B) Students believe that certain topics will please their instructors. Both these perspectives are incorrect, particularly from the point of view of a professor, who care far more about the quality of work handed in then how “pleasing” a particular topic might be to them (from a student’s perspective). The possibilities for research are nearly limitless regardless of which class you’re enrolled in. Even in the areas of history which have been researched for generation’s new interpretations and angles are constantly being found, often from the same old evidence. If you pick a historic topic which you are passionate about and are interested in, this be reflected in the final product and your final grade, as you will naturally put far more time and effort into a topic you’re actually concerned with. Moreover if you have to write an essay anyways, wouldn’t you rather learn about something you’re interested in?

Choose something historical

Seem rather obvious but topics must reflect developments in the past and must be oriented toward showing change or continuity over time. Therefore as a general rule topics should not examine the present or possible future developments, (unless the professor asks for this), and it must examine cause and effect in some way (i.e. tracking changes over time).

Choose something that is feasible, given the resources and time available

Like it or not there are a lot of real world constraints inherent in doing research. You will always be limited in the sources available to you for the purposes of writing an essay, for reasons ranging from language barriers to documents being locked away in an archive half a world away. The earlier you start your paper the more these limitations can be circumvented but many are simply insurmountable given time and budget constraints . If the TRU library doesn't have the materials your looking for, you can do an interlibrary loan, but anything ordered in generally takes a month or even more to arrive. Be honest with yourself about the more limited research possibilities that you have in the time constraints presented. Be careful about using internet materials to “fill in gaps” so to speak, due to several problems inherent in internet sources (these issues will be covered in the "types of sources" section) it is probably best to avoid using internet sources unless they are specifically approved by the professor. Moreover a lack of sources in a more general sense can also hinder the possibilities of doing research, for example the fact that there was no written material in the Americas prior to contact with Europeans (with a few very minor exceptions) means it is almost impossible to write historical papers on pre-contact indigenous peoples. It is best to try a pick a narrow rather than broad focus for your topic, as this will allow you to write a much more comprehensive paper that will generally end up being a lot less work in the end. For instance a paper which examines “the role of every women in medieval Europe” would be nearly impossible to write as the subject is inconceivably broad (I.E. more research then is possible), not to mention the fact that there would be almost no documentation on millions of the women in question (I.E. no research is possible). A paper examining a few specific women during a certain time period, or in a certain location would be a lot more plausible and palatable.

History students sometimes neglect to choose topics that interest them, believing either A) This is a pointless endeavour because history is always boring, or B) Students believe that certain topics will please their instructors. Both these perspectives are incorrect, particularly from the point of view of a professor, who care far more about the quality of work handed in then how “pleasing” a particular topic might be to them (from a student’s perspective). The possibilities for research are nearly limitless regardless of which class you’re enrolled in. Even in the areas of history which have been researched for generation’s new interpretations and angles are constantly being found, often from the same old evidence. If you pick a historic topic which you are passionate about and are interested in, this be reflected in the final product and your final grade, as you will naturally put far more time and effort into a topic you’re actually concerned with. Moreover if you have to write an essay anyways, wouldn’t you rather learn about something you’re interested in?