I. The Process
Choosing a topic is perhaps the single most important part of writing a good paper. If the subject isn't interesting, you can't write an interesting paper about it. More importantly, if you are not interested in your topic, there is no way you can interest your readers.
Think of choosing a topic as a process. As you work on the paper, the topic will become more and more narrow, more and more focused.
A. Start with an area of interest.
Begin choosing a topic by looking into some general area of interest. For example, you might be especially interested in political movements or women's history. Look through a general work on the subject to get some sense of the possibilities in that area. You may even wish to read a survey history of the field, just to get a sense of the possibilities.
Once you have a general idea of what you will write on, check to make sure there are sources available. While you should choose a topic about which you have something interesting and original to say, you should not choose something so obscure that there is not information readily available. You don't need to actually have the sources in hand at this point, but you should know they exist. We will do this formally in constructing the Preliminary Bibliography.
Once you are sure that sources exist, start narrowing the subject. Focus on a particular individual, period, genre event or document. You should not choose too broad a topic. You only have 15 weeks to write this paper so a paper on "The English Novel" would not be wise. At the same time, avoid a topic which is too narrow. You have to fill up at least 10 pages and you should try to say something significant. A paper on "What Hitler had for breakfast March 7, 1937" would not be wise.
Try to find a topic with a "hook," something which will grab the reader's attention and which will allow you to display your abilities as a writer and historian to their best advantage. This often involves taking an unusual stand on a controversial issue, using sources which have not been used before or approaching the topic from a slightly skewed angle. The most successful papers are often those with the cleverest hooks.
II. Three approaches
A. Go with what you know.
Many successful authors choose to write on some aspect of history with which they are already quite familiar. This has the advantage that you already know much of the background material which allows you, therefore, to concentrate on developing a refined and sophisticated thesis. On the other hand, material which you have already worked over is often difficult to present in a fresh and engaging manner.
B. Explore new territory.
Other successful authors use the opportunity of a research paper to explore an unfamiliar area. Authors who choose this route have a disadvantage in that they must work hard to develop a command of new material as well as find something clever to say about it. On the other hand, these authors often learn a great deal in the process and are often able to bring fresh insights to the material. Moreover, they experience the fun and excitement of breaking new ground.
Still other authors combine these two strategies. Rather than going into completely unfamiliar territory, these authors work in an area in which they have some familiarity. But rather than rehash old material, they strike out in a different, but related direction. For example, if you have already written a paper on the medieval guild system, you might consider writing on the rise of labor unions. With this approach you can build on what you already know while still learning something new.
III. Three Legitimate Types of Papers
One kind of paper centers on a primary source. The author attempts to understand a primary source, perhaps a painting or a novel, in its historical context. This kind of paper would address the motivations of the author or artist as well as the values or assumptions of the period in which it was produced or of the audience to which it was directed.
B. Historiographic issue.
Another kind of paper centers around an historiographic issue. Historians often disagree about how a particular event should be understood. Your paper might attempt to clarify or even adjudicate such a dispute.
C. Conspectus of an issue.
Still another kind of paper would be a review of the current research on a topic. For example, there are a large number of attempts to understand the origins of the French Revolution. You might read a number of these works to determine the current state of the field by identifying the different approaches and determining what work still needs to be done.
IV. Merely Summarizing Secondary Literature is Illegitimate.
The one kind of paper you may not do for this class is to summarize a number of secondary sources. This is to be an argumentative paper. That is, it must have a point of view; it cannot simply be a restatement of someone else's opinion or research. Moreover, you cannot properly form an opinion on an historical issue if you have not investigated the primary sources.
This is not to say that you should not make use of secondary sources, but that your essay must in someone way go beyond the secondary sources by incorporating both primary source evidence and your own original ideas and insights. Use secondary sources for factual information and for expert opinon, but the thesis of the essay must be your own.