How to Choose a Paper Topic (excerpt from Handbook for Historians)
The paper you will write for your history course will occupy a
significant share of your time for several weeks or months. Common sense
dictates that the topic chosen for such a complex project should be one
that you will find interesting. If you approach this assignment with
the preconceived notion that it is merely an exercise in drudgery which
must be completed in order to pass the course, then that is exactly what
it will become. But if you look forward to it as an opportunity to
learn more about a subject which excites your imagination and curiosity,
you can expect a far more rewarding experience. Never select a topic
unless you are reasonably certain that you can "live with it" for the
weeks or months required to complete your paper.
Once you select a topic, you will realize that it is almost certainly too broad for an undergraduate research project. Subjects like “The Medieval Church,” “World War Two,” and “The American Revolution” assuredly qualify as interesting, but even full length books cannot do justice to their complexity. These are general topics which must be narrowed drastically before you begin your research. Your professor will be happy to help you in this task, but only after you have begun the narrowing process yourself. Here are some examples of the type of narrowing that you must do:
Broad Topic: "Early Modern Middle East."
First Narrowing: “The Ottoman Empire in the time of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.”
Second Narrowing: “Sultan Suleyman and Emperor Charles V.”
Third Narrowing: “The Competition between Sultan Suleyman and Emperor Charles V for Supremacy in the Mediterranean.”
Broad Topic: "The Medieval Church."
First Narrowing: “Church State Relations in Medieval Europe.”
Second Narrowing: “Henry IV, Pope Gregory VII, and the Conflict over Lay Investiture.”
Third Narrowing: “Henry IV and the Pilgrimage to Canossa: A Turning Point in Church State Relations.”
Broad Topic: "Latin American Independence."
First Narrowing: “Mexican Independence.”
Second Narrowing: “Miguel Hidalgo and Mexican Independence.”
Third Narrowing: “How Hidalgo’s uprising led to the protracted struggle for independence in Mexico.”
Broad Topic: "Women's Rights."
First Narrowing: “The Women’s Suffrage Campaign in Britain.”
Second Narrowing: “The Pankhursts and the WSPU.”
Third Narrowing: “The Terrorist Tactics of the Pankhursts and the WSPU and their impact on the Women’s Suffrage Campaign in Britain.”
Broad Topic: "World War Two."
First Narrowing: “Medical Advances during World War Two.”
Second Narrowing: “How Medical Advances helped Soldiers during World War Two.”
Third Narrowing: “The Role of Plasma and Sulfonamides in reducing Mortality Rates during World War Two.”
Broad Topic: "The Modern Middle East."
First Narrowing: “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
Second Narrowing: “Land Issues and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
Third Narrowing: “The Role of Settlements in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process.”
A conference with your professor will be far more helpful if you have narrowed your topic in advance. The professor will then be able to help you refine your topic further, and will be able to make a number of practical suggestions concerning organizational format, source materials, thesis statement, and proper avenues for research. In short, you must select and narrow your topic yourself; only then will your professor be able to give you explicit advice about your paper; only then will you be able to make the best use of that advice.