4 Ways to Come Up With a Great Essay Idea

One of the most exciting and challenging parts of moving forward through your academic career is the increasing amount of freedom you get to decide what you want to write about.

It starts when you first get a choice of which question you want to answer, which might even first happen in primary school. Part of the challenge is figuring out which question you’d do best at answering; you’re not just regurgitating information any more, but needing to think critically about your own knowledge and abilities.
From there, the choices increase. You might be given a choice of three or more essay questions. Or you might get just the one question, but you can choose factors within it – you might be asked, for instance, the extent to which a character in Hamlet lives up to their own moral code – the question is set for you, but you get to choose which character you want to write about. The same might happen for a period in history or a monarch, or an analysis of a case study. And finally you’ll get to the point where you might have a topic list to choose from, but the essay title itself will be entirely up to you.

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Choosing your own essay title requires you to think about topics (say, Hamlet?) in ways you may not have considered before.

You may even be offered the chance to do this a little earlier, where you get given a list of essay titles but also told that you can come up with your own if you’d like. Few students bother, and it can be a high-risk strategy – you might come up with a title that is much harder to answer than the ones provided for you – but it can also be a route to crafting a title that is perfect for you.
All of the stages in this process – picking a question, picking a focus and, finally, picking a title – can be daunting when you haven’t done them before. In this article, we look at how to come up with essay titles that work for you.

1. Answer the question you want answered

The best way to come up with an idea for an essay is to consider what the question is that you would like to see answered. This can seem like quite a scary way of going about choosing a question, because it implies that the question has gone unanswered – that you’re suddenly going to come up with such an insightful question that no previous scholar in the field has contemplated.
If that’s how you’re thinking about this, don’t. You’re not trying to compete with all of the other scholars in your field (at least, we hope not – if you are, you probably shouldn’t need to be reading this article), you’re just trying to do better than your peers, if possible. This method of coming up with an essay title isn’t about pinpointing a question that you want answered because it’s never before been asked.

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Curiosity – it may have killed the cat, but it can only help you when coming up with an interesting essay title.

Instead, it’s about coming up with an essay title that suits your concerns, your interests and your personal reaction to whatever it is that you’re studying. An off-the-shelf essay title might produce a boring answer because you don’t actually care whether or not the Treaty of Versailles was the main cause of the Second World War, or where morality originates (though you may find these things fascinating). But if, for instance, you can’t get through Jane Austen’s Emma without finding yourself infuriated by the title character, and wonder why on earth Austen would have made her heroine so aggravating – these might seem like petty complaints, but you can make an essay out of it. Austen described Emma as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” – if you find Emma desperately dislikeable, you could probably produce quite an interesting essay on whether or not Austen was right in her assessment of the character.
You can apply this principle to anything that strikes you as weird, as annoying, as not quite right, and use that instinct as a springboard to explore a topic properly. While you might prefer to react to your studies with a kind of deep, beard-stroking appreciation, the truth is that an awful lot of great academic investigations of various topics are based on someone looking at them and finding that something irritates them, or doesn’t quite seem to fit, and going on to look at that properly and work out why – and you can do the same.

2. Look at the context

If you look at your topic and nothing stands out to you, then it’s time to start making things stand out. The school curriculum actually makes this quite easy, because we seldom study the typical, run-of-the-mill events, people, books, discoveries and so on. We study the notable ones. We look at how a king did things differently to his predecessors, for instance, rather than the points of continuity – unless there was so much continuity as to be notable in its own right.

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Things often take on new meaning or an increased significance when taken in the context of something else. Differences are more pronounced when two things are considered simultaneously.

When your entire curriculum consists of notable things, however, you can end up with a skewed perspective. We focus more on the reign of Henry VIII – which changed life in Britain forever – than the reign of his father, Henry VII, who brought an end to the Wars of the Roses but arguably the act that had the greatest repercussions for us today was that he successfully handed on the throne to his son. If you’ve learned all about Henry VIII but not so much about Henry VII, you’re unlikely to understand quite how significant the changes enacted by Henry VIII were.
This is why looking at the context is vital. This is particularly true for subject where you have to assess an artform, whether that’s Art History, Music, English Literature, Theatre Studies or Film Studies. If you only ever look at the canon – the high points of a particular era – you won’t come to understand what it is that made those particular pieces worthy of studying in the first place. For instance, many students will encounter Shakespeare as their sole example of 16th century drama – but that makes it very hard to see why Shakespeare’s work is so remarkable. Take a quick look at almost any of his competitors, though, and you’ll soon see the difference in depth and quality. And that gives you something to write about: what’s different and why it’s different.
When you have a question set for you, your teacher is already drawing your attention to what is notable about the topic. They will ask why Hamlet is indecisive, or why Henry VIII decided to break with Rome – the things that, with greater study of the context, naturally strike people as strange. They won’t ask why Shakespeare wrote a play about a prince rather than a commoner, or why Henry VIII chose to take the throne rather than living out a happy life as a leading tennis player. When you don’t have a question written for you, you have to figure out what’s notable or what’s strange on your own, and that’s why context is so useful.

3. Use your third idea

Writing a column shortly after the death of her father, Alan Coren, Victoria Coren Mitchell recalled his advice on how to come up with a good idea. He said that you shouldn’t use the first idea that you have for something, as that’s the one that everyone will come up with. Nor should you use your second idea, as that’s what the cleverer people who do a little bit more thinking will come up with. You should use your third idea, as that’s the one that only you will be able to think of; it will be entirely your own.

image shows a cartoon of Archimedes shouting Eureka!
When thinking of an essay idea, you may not have the ‘Eureka!’ moment. That is probably a good thing – a more considered, developed, original idea (be it your third idea or your eleventh) will probably make for a better essay.

This is excellent advice, and applicable in realms far beyond writing, such as choosing Christmas presents. If the options above for coming up with an essay title haven’t worked for you, try thinking of whatever ideas you can – even if they seem painfully obvious – and eventually you will work through all the ones that other people will think of, and get to something that will be your own to succeed at in your own way.
Alan Coren’s description of the advantages of the “third idea” strategy focuses on originality, but that’s not its only advantage. Coming up with an idea that’s yours alone means coming up with an idea that will be right and suited to your thoughts and skills. Your first and second ideas will be based heavily in what you’ve been taught, which is a good base to work from but that might not reflect your interests entirely. Your third idea – hopefully – will come from your own ideas, even if you haven’t quite got a handle on what those ideas are yet.
The third idea is also about letting yourself think a little more out of the box. Once you’ve got two nice, safe ideas down on paper, you should be in a position to think of something a bit less conventional. When you’re at school, your teacher might be marking your essay alongside those of twenty other people (or more if they have several classes). An unconventional approach will be a welcome relief among lots of identikit essays, and many teachers will prefer an essay that is interesting, takes risks and doesn’t get everything right over one that is technically perfect but comparatively dull.

4. Use unconventional brainstorming techniques

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Set yourself an allotted amount of time to write and you could end up somewhere you had never considered before.

If all else fails, there are lots of brainstorming techniques available to come up with ideas for just about anything, and one of them might work for your essay. For instance, you could try:
Writing down as many bad ideas as you can. This counter-intuitive brainstorming technique helps perfectionists by taking the pressure off. What would be a really terrible essay idea that would make your teacher angry with you for writing it? If you’re stuck in a loop of “can’t think of anything”, this technique can give your brain a jolt, and you may well find that instead of lots of bad ideas, you keep thinking of good ones.

Writing for a set period of time and not letting yourself stop.  – Give yourself a certain period of time, which could be five minutes, ten minutes, or the duration of a prog-rock classic, and write about the topic for that length of time. Don’t stop to allow yourself to think about it; just write. This might result in garbage along the lines of “Hamlet is very unkind to Ophelia and even more so to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and absolutely vile to his mother yet he is trying to be a good person, and Horatio still thinks well of him by the end of the play so clearly he is doing something right”, but keep going and you might find the seed of an idea appearing. This technique is related to the first point – whatever it is that you find yourself drifting towards when you’re forced to just keep writing is probably going to be a good topic to think about further.

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A good brainstorming session can increase the complexity and originality of an idea that may at first have seemed a little obvious.

Looking at it from someone else’s perspective. – This technique has a very broad application across problem-solving: you can look at the issue from the perspective of yourself five years ago, or from the perspective of someone from another country, or someone from a hundred years in the past. For an essay, you might want to think about the approach that a friend would take. Seeing something through someone else’s eyes can highlight a fresh approach that you wouldn’t have thought of while you were fixated on writing the best essay that you yourself can write.
Take an abstract noun. – This works best for essays on creative works such as literature or art, but may have application in other fields. Think of an abstract noun – happiness, hope, love, purity, curiosity – and see how it might apply to the thing you’re looking at. Let’s say you’re writing about the Industrial Revolution – think about the role played by hope, or curiosity. You can see how the seeds of an idea can be generated by this approach.
How do you come up with great essay ideas? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: Pen and paper, chimp, cat, tree, eureka, stopwatch, lightbulb.