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5.2: Pre-Writing – Choosing a Topic

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    It seems that the most difficult part of writing an essay for many writers is choosing and narrowing down a topic about which to write. Many of us, too, like to know how the essay will end, how long it will be, how long it will take to write, and so on. It is rather scary to just start writing without knowing where we are going. We have been trained to “have a purpose” in our writing and to plan our writings with outlines and other devices. We like the familiar Pick a topic, Make a thesis, Write an outline, Fill in the blanks. It is counter to our training not to do it this way.

    However, personal writing, in order to be effective, must be developed slowly and carefully. The first step, then, is to choose a topic without the preconditions that planning and purpose carry. We will begin writing without knowing what the ending will be. The statements with which you answer these questions are ones you will refer to over and over later in writing your essay.

    Most Common Question: “How can I choose a topic without making an outline?”

    A topic writing is a way to arrive at something specific to write about. It will take the place of an outline, since this kind of essay writing is designed to perfect the "elements" of an essay first, and arrange them later. Don't worry about how this will be shaped, or how it will be structured, or even how it will end. Think of it as writing first, structuring later. If you have trouble with this method, just remember that it is designed to teach about elements first.

    The process is actually very highly structured. The difference between writing to find a topic and writing an outline is that answering questions to find a topic assumes planning a writing has to do with patterns like narrative and description rather than with patterns like sentence and paragraph.

    Think about the prompts below. Write an answer to each one, and try to limit your answers to one sentence per question. Put your completed answers in complete sentences. Put your sentences together in a paragraph or two. Do not include the prompts in your writing.


    Please note: this is a planning writing, and will not become part of your essay. You will refer to this writing in order to plan each of the elements in Personal Writing.


    1. What is an object or place I will center my essay on?
    2. How is it connected to me in a personal way?
    3. How is it "insignificant" to others who might see it or know about it?
    4. Is it contradictory in some way?
    5. What are its physical characteristics?
    6. What are its qualities?
    7. What point do I want to make with this essay?
    8. What effect do I want this essay to have on my readers?


    How to answer the prompts

    Some students will rush through this list of questions and answer just to answer. You may do that as well, but sooner or later each question must be given sincere and honest thought in order to help develop the patterns that follow this introduction. Also be aware that each question may change the choice you make initially. That is perfectly normal because we should not make decisions like this lightly.

    Take your time. Remember that this is personal writing, so answer each from a personal perspective rather than the perspective of a student fulfilling an assignment.

    Prompt 1: Choose an object

    What is an object or place I will focus my essay on?

    When asked to “choose a topic,” most of us are inclined to choose a subject that interests us, like “life” or “relationships” or “football” or “clowns.” However, it is frequently much more effective to write about the subject indirectly, through an object or place, than to write about the subject directly.

    So, rather than choose a “subject” for an essay, we will choose an object or place. We will write about that object or place and a subject will emerge for the reader as we describe, define, and otherwise explore the object or place. You may start with a subject and choose some sort of object associated with the subject, but avoid direct mention of the subject in personal writing.

    For example, many writers like to write about something they feel strongly about, like “family.” If this is the case, we might choose some object that connects us to “family” in the way we want our reader to be connected. If we want to explore “family” as a subject we might choose the kitchen table as an object (or kitchen as a place) because that is where many of us gather (or gathered) as a family. Others might choose a porch swing, the front seat of a car, the sofa, or anywhere else that “family” interactions seem to take place.

    Most Common Question: “Which is better, an object or place?”

    Usually it is easier to write about an object. It is fine to choose a place to focus on, but writers sometimes find a place more difficult to write about. You may choose either, but plan to work slightly harder to write about a place.


    _____Is it tangible (can it be touched; not a concept)?

    _____Is it observable (can we see it)?

    _____Is it non-living (no pets or children)?

    _____Is it believable?

    _____Is my answer in one, simple statement?

    _____Is it a complete sentence?

    Check the examples below to see how they conform to the checklist above.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    I wish to focus my essay on a pecan tree in front of an old house at a camp where I used to live.


    This essay will revolve around a candle that I got as a gift.

    Prompt 2: Make it personal

    How is the object/place connected to me in a personal way?

    What is your personal connection to this object or place ("I own it" is not very personal)? By “personal,” I mean “emotionally attached” more so than “it belongs to me.” Some people might be personally connected in this way to things that do not belong to them (a tree on campus, a park bench, a public sidewalk) but with which they associate something personal anyway.

    When students are having trouble writing about objects, I frequently ask them how this object is personal. I can tell right away that, if they shrug and say, “I don’t know,” they probably have not answered this question properly.

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    Many important events happened under that tree, including staff meetings, lazy conversations with camp counselors and kids, meeting my wife, and encounters with various unexpected animals.


    The candle was given to me by my best friend for no apparent occasion, but it reminds me of her (she died a few years ago).

    Prompt 3: Make it insignificant

    How is the object "insignificant" to others who might see it or know about it?

    Many of us are at first inclined to choose something that is obviously significant, like a wedding ring, a cross, a trophy, and so on. Choose an object or place that only has significance for you but not for anyone else. In fact, the more insignificant it is, the better.


    _____The object is not a symbol

    _____No obvious connotations for others

    _____No crosses, chapels, rings, photos, or other obviously symbolic things or places

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\):

    The tree stood in the front yard of the house; people did not seem to notice it, passing under it constantly without ever seeing it.


    There is nothing special about the candle; it has no marks or perfume, and it sits on a dusty shelf in the kitchen.

    Prompt 4: Make it contradictory

    Is the object contradictory in some way?

    Look for something contradictory about the object or place: a sign that says “Up With Trees!” that is made out of wood; a pond named “Devil’s Pool” at a church camp; a watch that does not tell time; an empty drawer; plastic fruit; and so on.

    It might or might not be valuable to your essay for your choice of object or place to contain some contradictory element. You really do not know that at this point; you will find out later. However, find something contradictory and you will have the option to ignore or use it later.

    Most Common Question: “What if I can’t find anything contradictory about my object or place?”

    You have a couple of choices if you find this impossible. Try asking someone else if he or she sees anything contradictory about the object/place, or know of a similar object/place that is contradictory in some way. Or, you could choose a different object.

    My favorite option is to simply make up something contradictory. If I want to write about the tree in my example and there is absolutely nothing that seems contradictory or ironic about this tree, I will imagine it as if it does indeed have some contradictory element. We are not dealing with facts; we are dealing with images and the effect they have on the reader. If I have to “bend the truth” a little about the actual object I choose, I doubt if anyone will be able to verify it. In this case, the effect is more important than accuracy.


    _____Can the object be ironic, or seen in an ironic way?

    _____Is there some contradictory characteristic or element about it?

    _____If there is nothing obviously contradictory about it, can I add something to it to make it contradictory?

    Example \(\PageIndex{4}\):

    There was a "no trespassing" sign on the tree, yet it was a central meeting place at camp.


    The candle never seems to burn for more than five minutes before it goes out.

    Prompt 5: Describe physical characteristics

    What are the object’s physical characteristics?

    Describe your object or place in one statement if possible. This description should describe only its physical characteristics (color, size, shape, its environment, parts, textures, etc.). Keep it simple and to the point.


    _____Describe at least three physical things about the object (things you can see or touch).

    Example \(\PageIndex{5}\):

    Under the tree was the most beautiful carpet of grass; the branches were high and widespread with thick foliage, and there was always a dappled shade.


    It is white and squat, with a short, off-center wick, and sits in a plain saucer.

    Prompt 6: Qualities

    What are the object’s qualities?

    These are things that are not seen or noticed, but rather intrinsic to the thing or place, and they should be as specific to that thing as possible. A quality is something good or bad about it, or something intangible.


    _____Name at least three things about the object that are good, or bad, or somewhere in between.

    Example \(\PageIndex{6}\):

    The tree seemed almost friendly because it has overseen the start of many friendships, and trustworthy because it couldn't share any secrets that have been passed beneath it, and full of life, with squirrels, cicadas, blue jays, and sometimes 8-year-old boys.


    The candle is reluctant to burn, and when it does, it seems weak and anemic, and so never seems to change after I light it.

    Prompt 7: Make a point

    What point do I want to make with this essay?

    What point do I want to make with this essay? Simply state a point you want to make with the whole essay.

    Example \(\PageIndex{7}\):

    I want the point to may essay to be that life is fleeting, and things change constantly, but some places are important for their personal historical value.


    The point is that some friendships are so important that even death cannot change them.

    Prompt 8: Effect on the Reader

    What effect do I want this essay to have on my readers?

    What effect do I want this essay to have on my readers? State what you wish to happen to a reader who reads your essay.

    Example \(\PageIndex{8}\):

    I want a reader to come away with a sense of place and the importance of memories.


    I hope whoever reads this will feel the same sense of loss that I feel.

    By answering the prompts above slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully, you may arrive at a place to start an effective essay (one that has an effect on the reader). The rest of this process is similar in the sense that you will not really know how well you have done until you do it. This section, the topic writing, will serve as a reference for each element that follows.


    Use the object or place from this topic writing as the object or place in ALL the elements that follow. Do not use this topic writing as part of your essay. This writing is simply a way to find a suitable topic.

    This page titled 5.2: Pre-Writing – Choosing a Topic is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephen V. Poulter.

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