12. 1 The Topic Proposal Assignment

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“Topic Exploration and Research Proposal” provided by the authors

“Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age” provided by Penn State

“Reflective Writing Prompt: Topic Proposal” by the authors

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  • Describe the process of selecting a research topic.
  • Describe the research proposal writing process.

Topic Exploration and Research Proposal

provided by the authors

For English Composition II courses you are expected to conduct a research project, where you explore, research, and then create an argument about a topic of your choosing. For this assignment, you’re going to take the first step in exploring your topic through preliminary research and proposing what further research you’re going to conduct.

This assignment is usually divided into two parts. The first section is the topic exploration, in which you will explore the discourse community surrounding your chosen topic. This might involve giving an overview of the topic, discussing major advances or timely news items, or exploring the problems and controversies within that topic. In order to do this, you’ll need to present sources from your informal preliminary research. In discussing these sources, think about how the sources speak to each other, give different viewpoints of the same topic, or show the complexity of the discourse community attached to that topic. The purpose of the idea exploration is 1) to show that you’ve done your homework and 2) to give your readers an understanding of the conversation you’re entering with your research project.

The second part is the research proposal, where you’ll propose what you expect to accomplish with your research project and how you expect to conduct your research. The purpose is to establish the exigence of your project: questions you want to answer, the problems you want to solve, viewpoints you want to support, etc. You may get as specific as possible with your research plans and goals, with the understanding that you’ll become more informed as you conduct your formal research, and you may even change your opinions and viewpoints.

Remember that this paper is not an essay, with an argumentative thesis that you have to prove with evidence. It’s also not just an informative report on the topic. Think of it more as a reflection and exploration. When writing the idea exploration and research proposal, you should imagine that your audience is a group of students or scholars who would be interested in your topic, but might not have more than passing familiarity with it. So your purpose should be to give a good overview of the topic. It should also be to tell where your research is going, and to get your audience interested and excited about your research.

The following are important concepts that relate to the Reflective Writing Prompt:

Exigence,  “is the circumstance or condition that invites a response”

Discourse Community:  is a social group that communicates at least in part via written texts and shares common goals, values, and writing standards, a specialized vocabulary and specialized genres.”

Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

provided by Penn State

In the working world, you will often be in the position of writing a proposal, usually to try to solve a problem or receive approval or funding for a project. Such proposals must be prepared to exact specifications and must strike an artful balance between your own needs and those of your audience. Recently, I worked closely with a professor as she prepared a proposal for some vital funding for her research, and her revisions during our discussion were effective because they were completely audience-centered and goal-oriented, even to the point that she revised tentative-sounding phrases into positive affirmations, shortened paragraphs and provided more transitions so that her sentences were easier to read and reread, and changed certain past-tense verbs to present tense to establish a stronger sense of immediate relevance.

Topic Proposals

In your courses, your professor may simply ask you to write a short topic proposal for his or her approval, or you may be asked to write an extensive proposal as a warm-up for a term paper or lengthy writing project. The advice that follows will help you prepare an extensive proposal.

Pitfalls of Proposals

When you are faced with the task of preparing a proposal for a paper, consider your audience’s position first. Believe me, when a professor asks you to write a proposal, what he or she wants to do is read and understand it rapidly, give some feedback, and then grant speedy approval to someone who is clearly prepared to begin writing a paper. Empty phrases, vague detail, apparent self-absorption, cockiness, or a lack of confidence on your part just get in the way of all that. I once reviewed a batch of paper proposals in which the following sentences appeared verbatim:

Another aspect in which I will ultimately show there is some importance here is . . .

Currently I am working hard at gathering more information and reviewing all my present information, maps, and resources that I have etc., etc., etc.

At this point in time my proposed topic that I have chosen is . . .

By the deadline of this paper I will have expected myself to have gone far more into depth about this interesting topic and would have all of the required information.

In the nearly 90 words above, there is nothing of use to the reader of the proposal, who wants specifics, not fluff. Empty phrases merely waste the reader’s time and even breed suspicion that the writer has no real specifics to report. If you complicate what should be simple with such bloated, undigestible, and unswallowable phrases, your poor professor only winds up with a headache and heartburn.

Style for Proposals

As you compose your proposal, follow these stylistic tips:

  • Try out a title, seeing it as a window into your introduction.
  • Include an immediately relevant introduction that briefly and professionally sets the context. Do not bother with such silliness as “Hi!!! Happy to be in your class. My name is Joseph. My social security number is . . . .”
  • Have a premise, objective, or rationale clearly stated. Label it as such.
  • Use brief, logical, concrete section headings to orient yourself and your reader.
  • Take advantage of enumeration or formatting so that your important points stand out. Consider some sort of outline form where appropriate, even if only for one section of the proposal. Make it easy to scan.
  • Do not waste any time at all. No verbal drumrolls.
  • In general, do not hesitate to use “I,” but do not overuse it. Sound like a person, even if it means taking a tiny stab at something that feels creative or bold. You may strike just the right humanizing chord and be invited to do so in your paper as well.
  • Pose questions. Actively speculate. Be thinking on the page.
  • Remember that a proposal is not an unbreakable covenant, but a thoughtful plan. Be specific about the work that you have not yet done as well as the work that you have. For example: “I am still speculating about how best to define the general characteristics of particle systems, and I know that I need to find more information on particle interactions, mechanics, and processing.” Such a comment might inspire a helpful professor to jot you a concrete note about where to find the needed information.
  • Cite sources in your proposal, using the same citation style that you will use in the paper. You may be expected to give an annotated bibliography, but even if not, consider giving a sentence or so of description about your sources to establish your credibility, show the relevance of your initial research, and begin to spark the thoughts that the sources will help you to generate.
  • Proofread the proposal with care, just as you should the final product.

Important Concepts

research proposal

argumentative thesis

exigence

discourse community 

Reflective Writing Prompt

Topic Proposal 

In an informal memo to a specific audience (for example your high school English teacher or other favorite teacher from high school), write a short reflection on your first assignment for English 1020. In your response, develop your response to address the following questions:

Part 1: 300-400 words = How has this essay helped you better understand the type of thinking and writing expected in a research proposal (a genre)? In your response, address the following questions:

  1. What specific kinds of rhetorical knowledge and writing skills did you discover and see yourself using to accomplish this task? In other words, what types of knowledge that you possessed before (as a result of what you learned in high school and/or ENGL 1010) did you find yourself building on or refining in some way as part of completing this assignment?
  2. As an example, describe how your understanding of audience helped you choose what to include or what to exclude.

Part 2: 300-400 words = Describe one way you’ll use what you learned in this project in another class you’re taking or in future courses that will require research and writing. Draw upon specific details and examples from your own assignment and explain why they are going to be useful and adaptable to other writing contexts and discourse communities.

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This chapter contains an adaptation of Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age:  by  Joe Schall, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University., and is used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US) license.

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Composing Ourselves and Our World by Elizabeth Burrows; Angela Fowler; Heath Fowler; and Amy Locklear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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