250 Topics for Familiar Essays

Writing Suggestions From "Essays and Essay-Writing"

Man writing in notebook
"A personal essay needs conflict, just as a story does. . . . If the topic is too small, the essay runs out of steam. Too large, and it drowns in the details" (Phillip Lopate in Telling True Stories, 2007). Tetra Images-Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images

This list of 250 "subjects for familiar essays" originally appeared as an appendix to Essays and Essay-Writing, an anthology edited by William M. Tanner and published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1917. But don't let the date scare you away.

While a few of the topics are musty ("Our Ragtime Age") and some are a bit perplexing ("Grooves and Graves"), the majority of these topics are as timely (or perhaps timeless) as ever ("The Shrinking Earth," "Illusions We Live By," "Our Nervous Age").

Tanner's brief introduction strikes an encouraging note:

In no other form of prose composition is the selection of a subject so much a matter of the writer's own choosing as in the familiar essay. Though adequate subjects can rarely be assigned by another person, it is possible that the student may find in the following list a few titles that suggest subjects of interest to him and within the range of his observation and experience.

So remain open to these suggestions. Feel free to update a topic--for example, by turning "telephone etiquette" into email or texting behaviors. If you're puzzled by a subject, don't try to decipher what the author intended a century ago. Instead, take a few minutes to explore its possible meanings for you today.

250 Topics for Familiar Essays

1. On Discovering Oneself
2. On Deceiving Oneself
3. Epidemic Education
4. The Pleasures of Loafing
5. Favorite Antipathies
6. On Wearing New Shoes
7. The Penalty of Violating Convention
8. First Impressions
9. On Acquiring an Artistic Temperament
10. A Model Obituary

11. Uses of Disagreeable People
12. Keeping up Appearances
13. The Psychology of Bargains
14. People Who Make-Believe
15. Conceited People
16. Our Nervous Age
17. Sophomore Apathy
18. The Enchantment of Distance
19. On Being Worth Knowing
20. The Glory of the Commonplace

21. Mental Laziness
22. On Thinking for Oneself
23. The Necessity of Being Amused
24. Man's Opinion of Himself
25. On Giving Advice
26. Silent Talkers
27. My Ailments
28. The Valor of Ignorance
29. An Apology for Bores
30. College Libraries as Social Centers

31. Judging by Appearances
32. On Making Excuses
33. The Pleasure of Escape
34. A Word for Mediocrity
35. On Attending to Other People's Business
36. The Heritage of the Youngest Child
37. Academic Snobbishness
38. On Being Small
89. A Defense of Day-Dreaming
40. Leaders and Led

41. The Excitement of Having a Bank Account
42. By-Products of Church Attendance
43. Fashionable Tardiness
44. The Penalties of Success
45. On Looking One's Best
46. Cultural Immunity
47. Personality in Apparel
48. The Responsibility of Greatness
49. On Recovering from Love Affairs
50. The Passing of the Country Road

51. Mute Eloquence
52. On Choosing One's Ancestors
53. The Psychology of Patent Medicines
54. Helpful Enemies
55. The Tyranny of Trifles
56. Intellectual Alarm Clocks
57. The Monotony of Student Life
58. Table Manners
59. On Holding One's Tongue
60. Dangers of Narrowmindedness

61. The Tendency to Exaggerate Misfortune
62. Outgrown Opinions
63. On Making Apologies for Oneself
64. My Taskmaster--Duty
65. Talkers
66. The Character of Horses
67. Why the Dessert Course Last?
68. On Being Introduced
69. Running on Low Gear
70. Etiquette for Ancestors

71. On Going Barefooted
72. Cast-off Enthusiasms
73. The Joys of the Country Cottager
74. On Answering Advertisements
75. Reflections While Shaving
76. Shams
77. Intellectual Inheritances
78. The Imperious "They"
79. On Knowing When to Stop
80. Personality in the Handshake

81. Hairpins
82. On Taking Oneself Too Seriously
83. A Curse of Cleverness
84. Living Caricatures
85. On Repenting at Leisure
86. Imitations
87. The Joys of Procrastination
88. Popular Fallacies
89. "Men Say"
90. Human Parasites

91. On Looking Wise
92. Mechanical Pleasures
93. Sponges
94. On Waiting for the Postman
95. Intellectual Pioneers
96. Animal Resemblances in People
97. The Pleasures of Quarreling
98. Bird Music
99. Victims of Charity
100. On Being Misunderstood

101. Some False Impressions of Childhood
102. Rivalry in Gift-Giving
103. Faces and Masks
104. On Posing for My Friends
105. Seasonal Joys
106. The Value of Disagreement
107. The Pleasures of Living
108. Garden Friends
109. Animal Facial Expressions
110. Automobile Society

111. On Outgrowing One's Family
112. The Abuse of the Imagination
113. Humorous Blunders
114. Getters and Receivers
115. On Praying in Public
116. Pleasures of Memory
117. My Selves
118. A Plea for Ghosts
119. On Keeping a Secret
120. Color Antipathies

121. The Art of Eating Spaghetti
122. Pins or Angels?
123. On Going to Sleep
124. Human Blindness
125. Dream Adventures
126. Behind the Teeth
127. On Riding Pegasus with Spurs
128. Butterfly Fancies
129. "Present"
130. The Glamour of the Past

131. Chameleons
132. On Being Good Company for Oneself
133. Face Value
134. The Monotony of Being Good
135. Safety Valves in Student Life
136. On Being Mentally Alert
137. Company Manners
138. Nature's Spring Song
139. Mountains and Molehills
140. Old-fashioned Remedies

141. On Wearing Overshoes
142. The Influence of Proximity
143. Bristles
144. Working Over-Time
145. On Nursing a Grievance
146. Family Expectations
147. Mental Perspective
148. Subway Scenery
149. The Futility of the Practical
150. On Making Up One's Mind

151. The Responsibility of a "Perfect" Baby
152. Domineering Ideals
153. On Living in the Present (Future)
154. Social Misfits
155. Interesting By-Paths
156. Temporal Halos
157. Face Forward!
158. Mental Vagrancy
159. On Hugging a Conclusion
160. An Apology for Polite Lying

161. Preparedness
162. Gasoline and Onions
163. On Stepping Aside
164. Voices
165. Late Arrivals
166. "Next!"
167. Mental Detours
168. Watch Your Step!
169. On Telling Jokes
170. Epitaph Humor

171. The Winged Circle
172. Spring Styles in Freshmen
173. American Aggressiveness
174. Nature's Languages
175. Earthbound
176. On Advising the Almighty
177. Mental Lapses
178. Fashion Bondage
179. Haunted Libraries
180. The Humor of Cartoons

181. Wasting Time
182. On Growing Up
183. Beyond My Horizon
184. Mental Shock-Absorbers
185. After He Was Dead
186. Successful Failures
187. The Dilettante
188. Humorous Dyspepsia
189. On Becoming One's Own Financier
190. Conservation of Social Resources

191. Perfume and the Lady
192. On Being Eye-Minded
193. The Satisfaction of Being Well-Dressed
194. Earth Odors
195. The Life Urge in Nature
196. The Shrinking Earth
197. College Ethics
198. The Triumph of the Machine
199. Human Gadflies
200. The Failure of Success

201. Social Eclipses
202. Adventures While Pursuing an Idea
203. Our Ragtime Age
204. On Boasting of Weakness
205. Discords
206. Suspended Judgments
207. Second Thoughts
208. On Keeping Step
209. Understudies
210. The Vogue of Boredom

211. Smoke Wreaths
212. Traveling and Arriving
213. Echoes
214. Screens, Past and Present
215. Illusions We Live By
216. On Losing One's Grip
217. Poppies
218. Anvil Choruses
219. Interesting Pathetic Fallacies
220. Evidences of Humor and Joy in Animals

221. On Card-Indexing One's Friends
222. Gigglers and Growlers
223. Too Much Momentum
224. Mental Indigestion
225. Diddling
226. Female Orators
227. Laughter as a Social Asset
228. Personal Reactions
229. Grooves and Graves
230. On Taking Thought for the World

231. Blind Optimism
232. Church Theatricals
233. The Skimmed Milk of Human Kindness
234. On Asking Why
235. Canine Expressions
236. On Seeing One's Name in Print
237. Backyard Gardens
238. Curiosity in Chickens
239. The Passing of Modesty
240. On Going to War

241. Telephone Manners
242. Nodding
243. Social Protective Coloring
244. On Arising to the Occasion
245. Human Registers
246. The Responsibility of Being Sane
247. Acid Tests
248. The Pleasures of Eating
249. On Losing One's Freckles
250. Mental Precipitates

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Nordquist, Richard. "250 Topics for Familiar Essays." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/topics-for-familiar-essays-1692435. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). 250 Topics for Familiar Essays. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/topics-for-familiar-essays-1692435 Nordquist, Richard. "250 Topics for Familiar Essays." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/topics-for-familiar-essays-1692435 (accessed March 29, 2023).