(A version of this post originally appeared Dec. 6, 2013)
For many writers, beginning and experienced, simply finding a topic to write about is the most difficult part of the writing process. Utilizing some simple invention or brainstorming tools will set you on your way to uncovering an engaging topic, one audiences will be interested in reading, and you will be excited writing about for the next several weeks.
This catch-all term is thrown around quite often in the writing classroom. An instructor will ask you to spend some time “brainstorming” before you begin the writing process, but for many, this request just draws a blank. How exactly does one brainstorm?
1. Take a piece of paper, and list numbers 1-20.
2. To begin filling in this list, write down what interests you. If you draw a blank, consider what has been going on in your life lately – conversations you have had, or things you have read or heard on the news – and jot them down on your list.
If this seems too overwhelming, try categorizing your list into groups of 5.
Create one list of 5 labeled POLITICS (this could include current legislation that might affect you or your community; concealed weapons; mandatory military service; electoral system, etc.)
Create one list of 5 SOCIAL ISSUES (this might include healthcare, deforestation, sharing wealth, etc.)
Create one list of 5 CULTURAL ISSUES (this might include language reform, religious freedom, polygamy, etc.)
Create a list of 5 COMMUNITY ISSUES (this might include things that affect you where you work and live, such as parking, recycling, dorms on campus, A-F grade system, etc.)
Once you break it down into manageable chunks, it’s much easier to uncover some interesting and unique topics from current issues. Let’s look at our examples from above. One way to decide if a topic will make a good persuasive paper is to ask a “should” question based on the topic. Let’s look at some of the issues from our examples and put them into a “should” question:
- Should the government require mandatory military service?
- Should the government alter the tax system to force the rich to share their wealth with the poor?
- Should elementary schools require students to learn a second language?
- Should colleges and universities abolish the A-F grade scale and GPA system?
Digging Deeper: What do you already know about?
Another way to identify topics you might be interested in writing about is to consider your own knowledge and expertise. Everyone is knowledgeable about something, and many of us are knowledgeable about several things. What topics are you an authority on? Don’t sell yourself short. A list might include:
- Unique hobbies (spelunking, metal detecting, dumpster diving)
- Unique skills (second language, yoga master, cartoonist)
- Training or education (CPR, computer tech, sign language)
- Work Experience (manager, bartender, crisis counselor)
- Personal Experience (single parent, foster parent, football coach, nurse aide)
Now that you have a good list of hobbies, skills, and other knowledge and experience, consider how you can pull a topic out of those lists to compose an interesting essay. Some topics would make great informational essays, while others would make great persuasive essays.
- To reduce waste and our reliance on landfills, dumpster diving, or reusing or repurposing someone else’s trash, is a viable alternative.
- Yoga has been proven to not only improve balance, lower blood pressure, and fight disease, but can also relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Training in CPR should be mandatory for all public school teachers.
- Bartenders should/should not be held liable for the accidental injury or death of a person by someone they served who was found to be intoxicated.
- Same sex couples should/should not be allowed to become foster parents.
Taking time in the early stages of the writing process to brainstorm will lead you to unique and engaging topics for your paper. No one wants to write another “Legalize Marijuana” or “Lower Drinking Age” essay like they did for their high school teacher, and I promise instructors don’t want to read another one either. Uncovering topics you wouldn’t normally consider or even think about will earn you the admiration of your instructor, and you’ll enjoy the research process more as well.
STUDENTS: Share your unique topic ideas with us. How did you uncover your topic?