“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” —Anaïs Nin
This chapter begins with some prewriting strategies to help you generate ideas and pick a topic. In addition to learning ways to overcome writing anxiety (writers’ block), you will also learn how to craft an outline to keep your ideas on course, organize your draft, and tailor it to your audience. Before you actually begin writing, ask yourself the following questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Which?
For instance, you might ask yourself:
- Why am I writing?
- What is my subject?
- Which subject has the most potential to attract readers?
- Who is my audience?
- Where does my background information come from?
- How can I persuade my readers?
Keeping these questions in mind before, and during, the writing process will help you identify and develop ideas. If you experience difficulties, seek your instructor’s advice to steer you back on course.
How Do I Pick a Topic?
Have you ever been stressed out because you can’t think of a good topic for an important writing assignment? You're not alone. As a student, you'd probably prefer it if professors would just assign topics rather than leave you to find one on your own. However, professors aren’t vague because they want to punish you; they usually just don’t want to constrain your creativity or discourage you from writing about topics that truly interest you. Professors also want to be surprised by their students’ ingenuity, and very few teachers want to read a big stack of essays all on the same stale topic. Unfortunately, just being told to “be creative” is unlikely to calm you down when you have a major paper due next week and still haven’t found a topic to write about.
Imagine that you are in an introductory literature course. The professor has assigned a 3-5 page essay on a Shakespearean play that requires multiple sources. You try asking the professor to be more specific or offer some suggestions. The professor responds, “No, it’s up to you. Surprise me.” What do you do?
One smart option is to go to the library and look for scholarly journals that cover Shakespearean studies. In today’s environment, much of these journals are housed electronically in databases your college library subscribes to. You might also try scholarly books about Shakespeare and his plays. Browsing these sources should give you some ideas about the aspects of Shakespeare and his plays that scholars have found worth writing about. You might find that an idea that you thought was “totally original” has already been done. However, you shouldn’t let this worry you. If every essay or book had to be 100% original, we’d have precious few to read.
If you keep reading and skimming articles and books, you will find many different discussions and possibilities for writing topics. One way to do this is to write a list of binaries, a list of opposing ideas that may represent larger discussions about the topic at hand. Choosing from these opposing ideas in the text will lead you to ideas for a more specific argument. Scholars frequently engage in complex and long-lasting arguments that span across different journal articles and books. Professor X’s article on climate change will be mentioned, discussed, or challenged by Professor Y in a book and Professor Z in another article. None of them are worried about saying things that have never been said before; the key is just to say them differently and perhaps better.
You will always have one advantage over any other scholar you read—their articles and books cannot take advantage of all the relevant scholarship that appeared after their publication date. Don’t be afraid to freshen up an old article with new supporting evidence—or challenge one whose conclusions are called into question by subsequent research.
You should also look for an issue that you can reasonably cover given the time and space (page count) you have available. After that it’s a simple matter of supporting your argument by bringing in relevant quotations from those who agree with you. You should also identify the counter-arguments and provide pertinent background information.
In essence, the easiest way to find a topic to write about is to see what other writers are writing about and join their “conversation.” The conversation metaphor is a very useful way to understand what scholarship is all about. Rather than thinking of essays or books as isolated units of scholarship, try envisioning them as the fruits of a massive network of scholars who converse with each other via scholarly documents, conference presentations, e-mail, phone calls, and other forms of communication. Research what is available and where you can make the most valuable contribution.