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First Year Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English

Resources and tools that support research of students enrolled in EN 121

How to navigate this guide

This guide uses tabs to provide examples of each skill that is presented. Feel free to explore the different tabs in each section before moving on to the next portion!

Choosing a topic

Choosing a topic can be a very intimidating task. We recommend choosing something that you enjoy thinking about. Your enjoyment of the topic will help sustain your curiosity and motivate you to ask interesting questions that will draw in your reader.

Here are three topic models that help demonstrate the various possibilities within each theme, and then a linked YouTube video that provides a different way of thinking about each topic. Feel free to investigate your topic using a variety of resources and remember that when you are choosing your topic, there are infinite ways that you could approach your chosen subject! 

Example 1: Mario Kart 8

Possible Topics: 

  • symbolism and iconography for tactical and strategic choices while racing in a grand prix
  • item algorithm and player placement to offer tactical advantages throughout the race
  • nostalgic inclusion of the Nintendo universe 1)characters such as the Koopa Troopas, Brutals, Animal Crossing, Zelda, and the Inkling Twins; 2) boards that use themes from other Nintendo games

Example 2: Pirates

Possible Topics:

  • What is the economic impact of modern day piracy on the oil industry in the United States?
  • Is there a connection between the legend of Robin Hood and pirates? Can piracy be practiced as a form of civil disobedience? 
  • What do the depictions of organized crime in Star Wars and The Expanse hve in common with modern day piracy?

Asking questions and finding an approach

Choosing your topic is more than choosing a theme or subject to write about. Once you have a general idea about what you'd like to write about, you then have to negotiate what you want to say about that theme or subject. A good way to poke at the topic to choose your approach is to ask questions about it. This is a kind of brainstorming that allows you to determine where your interest lies, and identify what you are truly interested in. These are not the only strategies you can use! They are three ways that other people have found to be helpful. We recommend that you try them out, and don't be afraid to move through the process using your own strategy!


During the process of developing your topic, it is important to be specific about what you are writing. No two approaches are identical to each other. 

The above visualization asks sense-making questions Who, What, When, and How to help writers focus on the specifics of their topic of research. With our example of writing about the Nintendo Switch video game Mario Kart 8, we might be interested in writing a paper with the thesis: THESIS: "MK8 players gain an advantage when they choose the vehicle options that match their character's original game." In this scenario, we could answer the sense making questions:

visual presentation of sense-making questions (Who, What, When, How)


Who: MK8 players

When: During gameplay

What: Gain a playing advantage

How: Choosing vehicle options that match the original game of their selected character



If can answer questions like these with specifics, we are well on to our way to being able to identify and access sources and write a strong, compelling paper!


screenshot of article on Mario Kart 8 Roster List


 Sometimes, when we get an assignment, we feel uninspired about any topics. 

A topic can be inspired by anything! . Perhaps you are reading an update on a product or a band or a hobby that you are involved in. Take this example, an article on the blog! If you play Mario Kart 8 and you spend a little of your downtime browsing articles like this, a topic might pop out at you.


This kind of topic exploration, finding something that you are truly interested in, usually makes for a more interesting experience writing and a more enjoyable experience for your professor to read! 



One of the easiest ways to make some decisions about your topic is to try to explain it to a friend. Here are a few tips for "talking it out." We talk our friends through lots of issues in our lives, and writing is no different! If you are a person who processes things verbally or needs to say something out loud before you can write, then this is the strategy for you.

Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Try to develop a 2 sentence explanation of your topic that includes enough specifics that a stranger can understand it. Think of it as an "elevator speech."
  • Talk through one point that you are interested in writing about and try to demonstrate why it's important through the use of examples. 

two friends walking on the beach and talking

Let your friend ask questions. Here are some suggestions:

  • What do you want people to know/do when you are done writing?
  • What is the most important aspect of your topic?
  • Tell me why you care about this? What made you decide to write about this?
  • What are you most frustrated about? What are you stuck on?
  • What do you need to do to finish?

Developing keywords

Making a list of all of the words associate with your topic can help when you are searching!
pirate steal
ship sea
ocean seafarer
cargo treasure
history "modern day"
novels movies
manga "Sir Frances Drake"
swashbuckling "drug cartel"
Caribbean Somalia
"Gulf of Mexico" "Indian Ocean"






Madame Cheng

Mindmap visualization of ideas about pirates















Created by Sara Whitver using MURAL, 2022.

When the search terms you are using aren't yielding the results you thought you would get, you should adjust the keywords you are using!
Ocean Pirate
  • Sea
  • Gulf
  • Open Water
  • raider
  • privateer
  • sea rover
  • thief

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