Writing About Literature: Picking a Topic

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 12878

Oh, no! You've been asked to write a paper about a book you just read. No fair copying from the back of the jacket! Choosing a topic can be tricky but these steps will make the process easier for you!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


How do you decide what you want to write about? How do you go about picking a topic for a paper? This first step in getting started is often the hardest part!

Imagine that you've just finished reading a novel for a class and now the teacher wants you to write a paper reflecting on that novel to show what you know about the book.

Many times, a teacher or parent will assign a specific topic for writing, such as "Explain one of the themes of the novel," or "Explain how Character X is a hero." However, sometimes a teacher or parent might give you more free choice for writing and simply say, "Write a paper on the novel." While it can be exciting to have so much free choice, sometimes it can also be scary because it's not always easy to know where to begin.

The first step in writing about literature, whether it's a poem, short story, play, or novel, is to pick a topic. So, how do you do this if you don't have a topic assigned to you? There are several steps you can take to help select a successful topic for a literary response paper. Read through the following steps:

  1. First, consider the major components of literature. Most works have the following elements: characters, plot, theme, setting, and language. Write each of the categories at the top of the page. Then, below each category, write down what you know about each one from the text you read. You are just brainstorming, so list everything you can think of at this point.
  2. Once you've made your list, circle the areas or topics that seem the most interesting to you. You want to choose something interesting to write about because it makes writing more fun and easier when you are engaged in your topic.
  3. When you have identified a few general areas that are interesting — two or three is sufficient — then take out a new sheet of paper and brainstorm about what you know on each specific topic. Just free-write anything you can think of related to the topic. Don't worry about punctuation or sentences at this point! Give yourself a time limit — five or ten minutes is sufficient — to see how much information you can generate on each topic. This will help you decide if you have enough information to develop a paper on this subject. If you can't think of too much information, it might not be a strong subject for a paper.
  4. Review your brainstorms.
  • Does one topic stand out from the others with a good amount of detail?
  • Does one topic appear to be more interesting now that you have explored it a little more in-depth?

If so, this will probably be the strongest topic for the paper. If all the topics seem to have relatively the same amount of information, then choose the one that most interests you.

  1. Now that you have a general topic, look at your list.
  • Do you have something on your list that you can "prove" or "claim" about your topic?

For instance, you wouldn't just want to describe characters in a book. That is not very interesting and is something most people would know. A weak claim would be, "Goldilocks from 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' is a young girl." However, you want to take a stand on a topic that can be proved, such as, "Character X has to struggle with being the middle child in his family," or "The novel proves that a character can become a hero by standing up for what she believes." These statements make a claim or argument about a topic that can be proved from evidence in the book. A strong claim would be, "Goldilocks likes Baby Bear's household items because she is most similar to this bear," or "Goldilocks' actions show the dangers of trespassing." A claim is also called a "thesis" or "thesis statement."

  1. Once you have a general topic and a claim or argument about it, then think about the audience.
  • Who are you writing for?
  • Who will read your paper?
  • Is it someone who is an expert on the story or poem?
  • Is it someone who has never read the work before?

It is important to know who will be reading the paper because that tells you how much information you need to include and what information you can assume the reader knows. For example, if someone didn't know the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," you would need to provide a brief summary so the reader can understand the story. In most academic settings, the reader is someone with general knowledge of the subject. Therefore, you can assume the reader has basic knowledge of the story but needs to be shown evidence to prove your claim. If the assignment didn't explain who is the intended audience, you can always ask your parent or teacher!

Now that you know the steps to picking a successful topic, watch the following video. As you watch Choosing a Topic by Shmoop, write down the questions the video describes for picking a topic in your notes. You can pause the video as you write down the six questions:


Now, answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:

  • Why should you pick an interesting topic for a paper?
  • How do making lists and brainstorming with freewriting help you pick a topic more effectively?
  • Why is it important to have a claim or an argument in your paper that you can prove to the reader?
  • Why is it important to know who the reading audience of your paper is?
  • How do different audiences affect the information you plan to include in your paper?

Once you've discussed these questions, move on to the Got It? section to practice these skills for picking a topic.

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