Being handed an open-topic essay is one of the best and worst parts about college. It's liberating and terrifying at the same time—but it doesn't have to paralyze you! There are a few quick, easy solutions to starting what seems like an impossibly large project, but the best part of all is that there is no wrong way to do these. If one solution isn't working for you, you can switch over to another; before you know it, you'll be all done.
1. Pick a Topic
This is NOT as hard as you think it is! First thing's first: ask yourself what the general subject of the paper is. If it is for history, then make a quick list of your favorite stories, people, battles, or other things that have popped out at you. If it's a literature assignment, do the same but for the fictional works. The key here is making lists or bullet points, to get the ideas flowing and put something to paper.
2. Narrow the Focus
Now you have your general topic, it's time to narrow the focus down further so you don't have to sift through thousands of articles about the topic. Take the American Revolution, for example. It is an incredibly broad topic, with works of literature, art, and even a musical about it, so you could pick one of those things, or focus on the artillery used in the Revolution, the political reasons behind it, or even the key players in the war.
3. Pick an Angle
This is my favorite part of starting a paper because this will become the most unique aspect of the paper and the one that catches the professor's attention. The key here is to find a fresh take on a subject that's been written about for hundreds of years. Going again with the example of the American Revolution, if you focused on the key players, you could (as Lin Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton) juxtapose two of them and show that they are not as different as they liked to believe, as seen with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Another example would be if you focused on the artillery and then tied that into politics, or the manufacturing and distribution of the artillery and how that affected the war, instead of merely describing weaponry.
4. Organize the Info
This is the part where you research your newly honed, specific topic and find some key resources. Make SURE to use primary resources whenever possible (these are the first hand accounts and actual texts from the time period in question). Once you have enough information to form a paper, play with them and see where you want to start. Perhaps you'll want to start chronologically, or perhaps you find several ideas to explore and want to structure it so the biggest and best is saved for last. I find outlines to be most helpful here, even if they're ridiculously skeletal.
5. If All Else Fails...
If you're not finding enough information for your specific, narrowed topic, broaden it back up and try again. If you lose interest halfway through research, start from the top! There are no wrong answers here. And, if you're ever in doubt over whether a chosen topic applies, but you think you can make it work or you feel passionately enough about them, talk to your professor. Usually, they're more than happy to see you excited about something, and will work with you!
Finally, you can come make an appointment with the Writing Center. Tutors will be excited to help you brainstorm these ideas and angles, and find your path.