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Once you're familiar with the guidelines and limits for your assigments, you should engage in some "presearch." There will be things you don't know. Try to get a sense of your topic--get a solid understanding of the basics. Pay attention to the vocabulary that's used by others writing about the same topic. Try to get a sense of what others are saying so that you can confidently take an original approach.
Re-read relevant course readings and class notes.
Pay attention to the vocabulary being used by the authors of your readings. Use your class notes to review how your topic was discussed in class.
Explore your topic; try to get a sense of what you do and don't know.
Do some background reading: use your class textbook, Google, Wikipedia, The New York Times, etc. DO NOT plan to use this information to write your paper, or to form your argument. Just do some reading to get comfortable with and thinking about your topic.
Find out how other people in other fields approach and discuss your topic.
Sciences: "climate change and crop viability" "effectiveness of water pollution control systems in the Pacific Northwest"
Arts / Humanities: "evolution of the rhetoric of the American protest song" "the role of music in Kyoto Protocol protests"
Social Sciences: "social cohesion of neighborhoods with community gardens" "the effect of positive reinforcement on sustainable consumerism"
Choose an aspect that you want to know more about.
Even mundane topics have multiple facets. Completing your assignment will be easier if you have an interest in the subject matter. You'll be doing a lot of reading and writing--don't get stuck with a topic you don't care about.
Once you've settled on a general topic or area of interest, you can start to think about how to customize / personalize your paper within the context of the guidelines. Say you've decided to write about plastic bag pollution, ask yourself, "Who cares?"
"select a known environmental problem" - plastic bag pollution
Will you focus on international or domestic pollution?
Which part of the environment is harmed?
Are you interested in plastic waste in landfills or marine debris?
Do you want to include the impact on humans, animals, and/or plants?
"summarize the scientific aspects" - How is plastic bag pollution harmful?
Do bags decompose?
Are chemicals leached during decomposition?
What happens to bags that end up in rivers, lakes, and/or oceans?
Are there consequences for the plant/animal life in the area?
Are plastic bags less harmful than any alternatives?
What benefits do plastic bags impart to the environment?
"propose two cultural changes" - go beyond the obvious
Think outside of the box. Use ideas from your presearching to go beyond the obvious. For example, proposing a "bag deposit program" (similar to can deposit programs) is more original than proposing a bag tax or ban.
presearch in action
Explore the image below -- mouseover the targets to learn more about presearching a topic.