Whether you have an assigned subject or choose your own, you need to get focused and engaged with the project. Assigned subjects may look limiting at first, but they offer plenty of room for individual expression. Open subjects, while promising great freedom, can be daunting because they don't provide direction. They leave it all up to you. Yet these two situations, different as they appear, present simi­lar challenges.

To get started, don't worry about your subject--start writing. Let the process get messy and complicated. Allow yourself freedom to make mistakes.

Either way, you must locate your center of interest, and find what you can say that your reader will value. A good way to begin is to write. Worrying or "mulling things over" seldom works. Worry increases anxiety, and ideas you don't write down get lost or forgotten. Writing gives your thoughts substance and form, so you can return later and reshape or add to them.

To get started then, don't worry about your subject--start writing. Let the process get messy and complicated. Allow yourself freedom to make mis­takes. Or head off on a tangent. Mistakes often turn into discoveries. A tan­gent can develop into a central focus. Try Free writing or The Journalist's Questions. Experiment with the following activities. Get carried away. Then pause. Look back over what you've written. Look for patterns, flashes of insight, overriding concerns. Cut. Paste. Add. Move. You'll find that you're well on your way.

As you find a center of interest, you may want to narrow your subject's scope, to make it more manageable and specific. For more information on sharpening and focusing a subject, see Subject to Thesis.


1.1 Make a five to seven item list of writing possibilities. Include one or two "off-the-wall" topics. For instance, if your assigned subject was the Civil War, you might list "strange army hats" as an off-the-wall possi­bility and later decide it could make a good essay. If possible, talk your list over with a partner or small group.

1.2 Take two items from the list you made for Activity 1.1 and divide the subjects into parts on branching trees, as in the example below.

Dividing the Subject


Hint: Just copy the table below to your word processor, delete the Civil War terms, and replace them with your own.

  Rationale for
Acts of Reconstruction    
    For North
    For South

1.3 Try cross-matching and combining possibilities from your branching trees. Phrase the results as questions:

  • How did the different social values of the South and the North account for the problems of Reconstruction?
  • What economic problems did the South experience as a result of the Reconstruction?
  • How did economic changes caused by the Reconstruction affect social relationships in the South?

Generate as many questions as possible. Don't worry about whether your questions are profound. Include a few off-the-wall questions if you want.