Creative Limits: Placing Barriers on Topic Selection

Eric Holmes, Purdue University Global Composition Instructor


Scott Adams (2004) once stated that, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes,” (p. 232) and our classrooms are places for students to be creative and to learn from their mistakes. However, we must steer our students toward success and thus balance their creativity with their responsibilities in the course.

As a composition instructor, I have seen students struggle due to a seemingly simple task: topic selection. While innocuous, choosing the wrong topics to write about can cause students stress and lead to poor coursework and a lack of enthusiasm for the course, which leads to poorer grades.  Ideally, students choose topics that play to their strengths, pique their interests, are not needlessly difficult, and add value to their educations.

As instructors, we assign coursework to give students the best chance of success while teaching them the most valuable information about composition. With this in mind, placing limitations on student creativity in regard to topic selection not only makes it easier for students to decide on a topic but also leads to better coursework. In my career, I have seen students choose topics to write about that do not play to their strengths and/or makes researching and drafting needlessly difficult. From this, I have found that there are five factors that make a topic a hindrance:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of interest
  • Emotional pain
  • Lack of available data
  • The topic needlessly adds to existing workload

These factors make the student experience being uncomfortable, and to remedy it, I teach students to follow five metrics in regard to choosing a topic to write about. These five metrics address the aforementioned factors that lead to student angst. Here are the metrics that students need to consider when selecting a topic:

  • The topic should be something that students know about.
  • The topic should be something that students care about.
  • The topic should be something that is comfortable.
  • The topic should be something that is available.
  • The topic should be something that is value-added.

To some, the idea that students must choose a topic that they already know about is counter-intuitive. After all, students are in your course to learn.  However, the focus must be upon the certain skill that students are there to learn.  With this in mind, I advocate that students choose as familiar of a topic as possible. In doing this, they are streamlining the writing process by avoiding a task that will involve considerable time and energy better spent elsewhere, as learning even basic information about a new subject is labor intensive, and that labor is better spent working on writing. The point is that when developing a new skill, it is best to play to your existing strengths. That strength also extends to how much students care about a topic.

If students choose topics that they have no interest in, the entire process, from finding evidence to drafting and finally revising/editing, will be laborious. Enthusiasm goes a long way toward success, and it is important to tell students that they will be spending considerable time with their topics, so choosing ones that they care about is vital. Any task is easier when it is enjoyed and students will, as a result, write better and earn a higher grade.

At the same time, it is important that students avoid discomforting topics. Many students attempt to write about topics in a cathartic effort to come to terms with trauma, such as the loss of a loved one. However, the self-inflicted misery that comes with choosing such a topic comes with another cost: poorer work. This is a result of students avoiding the work needed to do well, as the writing process serves as a painful reminder. To drive this point home, I ask students to recall a painful moment and then ask them if they like to think about it. When they respond no, I connect that answer to the decision to avoid such a topic for their paper.

Given the ubiquity of the Internet and the false belief that all information is online, many students are tempted to choose a topic that is too Avant-garde. This is not to say that the topic is inappropriate but rather too new for there to be any substantive knowledge about it. For the sake of student sanity, I urge them to choose topics that have available data, as it is frustrating to be unable to find information on important topics in a world where a Google search for “Charlie Sheen tiger blood” yields more than 100,000 hits.

Finally, I urge students to choose topics that are value-added. While a seemingly empty buzzword, value-added in the context of topic selection means that the topic itself serves another purpose outside of the course. For example, if students are taking another course that requires a paper, they can use the same topic for both. While this statement may raise a plagiarism accusation, writing two different papers using the same topic and body of data is not plagiarism, as the papers contain different content that meets different criteria for different courses. By using the same topic and research data for two different assignments, students can use the time and energy saved to focus more on the act of writing.

As educators, our role is to give students every tool needed to be successful and these metrics are effective for helping students narrow down potential topics without diminishing their creativity. By using these five metrics, students will choose topics that play to their strengths, pique their interests, are not needlessly difficult, and add value to their educations.

Composition and Topic Selection


Adams, S. (2004).  1001 smartest things ever said. In S.D. Price (Ed.). Guilford,

CT:  Lyons Press.

1 Response

  1. Thanks, Eric. I like the idea of helping students with a value-added topic. I see this as something that could give students buy-in to the assignment and overall education. I think somethings students are surprised to learn they can use their education to their advantage. In other words, use the choices they have about topics to learn things they want or need to know in other areas of their lives. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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