On Choosing Topics

What should I write about?

Posted on June 29, 2023 · 8 mins read
There comes a time in every blog's life when we get meta with the topic and cover the age-old question; “What should I write about?”. Today is that day. Yet even though the post has barely started, there’s immediately a problem. The question is always a variation of “What should I write about?”

Should: “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions.”
Oxford Languages

By including the word ‘should’, what we are asking is ”What is the best and most correct topic for me to write about?” When written this way, it’s easier to see how this question puts a lot of undue stress on the person asking.

“These types of statements can make you feel worried or anxious. They can also cause you to experience guilt or a sense of failure. Because you always think you "should" be doing something, you end up feeling as if you are constantly failing.”
Verywell Mind

A better version of this question is “What could I write about?”. To answer that I propose following the two methods outlined below. If you can follow both at the same time, fantastic. But if that’s too much pressure then keeping to one of them will also work fine.

(Note: Though we are using writing as the framework, this advice also applies to any number of creative endeavours, including presenting, drawing, painting, filming, puppetry, and so on.)

Method One: Write what you know

It’s generic advice I know, to say to cover what you know about. It also usually doesn’t work, because you’re left just as overwhelmed with intangible thoughts and concepts as you were before. Either you know lots of things but don’t know which of them would be ‘right’, or worse this is the moment when you have remembered absolutely nothing in your whole life and are drawing a blank.

So first, we need to find out what we know.

We do this by working to our strengths. Being humans, we are not great at starting from scratch. What are we good at though? Humans are good at spotting things, noticing the important aspects, and seeing patterns. We had to be to survive - seeing any dangers to avoid, and spotting resources at the same time. To highlight this, consider this exercise:

Right now, without searching, name every dwarf in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Unless you watched it recently, chances are that you will only remember a couple of them.
Now try again, but this time while looking at this list of dwarf names:

Word cloud of the names: Sneezy, Balin, Cranky, Gloin, Bofur, Kili, Grumpy, Fili, Doc, Flint, Gimli, Eitri, Bashful, Sleepy, Dopey, Mulch, Gleeful, Happy, Dozy, and Thorin. Chances are, you had much more success getting all seven names the second time.

So how do we recreate this for any topic?

First, get a blank notepad, document, or anywhere you can write freely. On there, write down every subject that you know anything about. It doesn’t matter how much or how little, just everything that comes to mind.

From this page of subjects, choose one. It can be any of them - if one stands out to you then great, if none stands out then pick one at random.

The next step is to write down everything you know about that chosen subject. Again we’re not self-censoring. It doesn’t matter how ‘basic’ or ‘boring’ the information is, get it all out on the page.

Once we have things on the page, we can start to group things, and see if any interesting threads catch our eye. Put enough facts in a cohesive order, and just like that you have a workable structure for a blog post.

“But what if I barely wrote down anything?”
Sometimes we don’t have full creative freedom to choose the topic as it has been dictated by someone else, and we have to talk about it anyway. Other times we do want to cover a topic, but we aren’t as well versed in it and there isn’t enough information to work with.

In this scenario, when you simply don’t know enough, it’s time to learn about the subject. Using the above exercise we can see the gaps in our knowledge, so now it’s time to fill them.

One way to do this is to write everything out on a page, again. But instead of writing what you know, write what your questions are about the topic. What do you want to know? This is for your viewing only, so feel free to ask any questions that you want. Use these questions as a guide to your studies.

Learning about the topic more will also go a long way to help with any feelings of imposter syndrome (which is a topic I may cover in a later blog post).

Method Two: Write what you are interested in

When choosing between multiple potential topics, always err on the side of the most interesting one. By this I mean the one most of interest to you, not the one you think is ‘objectively’ most interesting. I once attended a two-hour-long worm farm seminar (it’s a long story), and beforehand I was dreading going - it felt safe to assume I was about to be very bored. Instead, it ended up being a surprisingly enthralling experience and I learned more about worms than I ever thought I would, all because the person giving the presentation was that engrossed in the topic himself. We respond to the emotions of other people more than we realise. Seeing someone bored is boring, and seeing someone excited is exciting.

If you must write about a topic that is not of interest to you, then the next best step is to find a way to care about the subject. Is there an aspect of the topic that you are more interested in? Can you change the ‘angle’ of focus to that?

Finally, writing about a topic of interest will make the whole writing process more fun. Too often we focus on the outcome, on the finished piece. “Will this be any good?” or “Will anyone care?”, we worry about the reception, or about what’s next, and many, many other things besides. Take the pressure off the outcome, and look at the process instead. You have to be there for the process anyway. The enjoyment you feel during writing will have an impact on both the draft and final products, and it will reflect through the writing in a million different ways. And in the very unlikely worst-case scenario, where everything you have written is utterly unpublishable - at least you had fun while writing it.

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