it comes to any writing, whether for pleasure or for an assignment, the
first step is to pick your topic. This step is the easiest part of the
process for some writers, followed by the much harder task of supporting
and developing a coherent paper around the idea. But this is not always
the case - most writers are familiar with that unfortunate situation of
staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out how to start a paper
while the crickets chirp between their ears. Below I will outline some
strategies for picking a subject to write about to help you overcome
this wall and get your writing started. These strategies can be
simplified into a basic code: write what you like, write what you know,
or write what makes sense.
Writing What You Like
There are many types of papers with many types of prompts, but often the hardest to start are the most open ended. With these prompts, the near limitless range of topics can be intimidating, and choosing a specific one to write about when there are so many can appear to be a challenge. The first thing I would recommend is simple - write about something you like. No matter the subject, whether it is for a personal novel or a 10 page research paper, the writing process will be much easier and much more enjoyable if you have a genuine interest in the topic. Even if the prompt is more specific, such as choosing a topic related to a specific historical event, try to find anything that you would really want to write about. If you are someone who does not like writing, doing research and formulating ideas around a topic you like will make the process bearable, and hopefully even a little fun.
Writing What You Know
Sadly, however, not all assignments can be so open-ended, and sometimes there will just not be a topic to write about that you like. This occurs mostly when you move away from personal writing or writing assignments focused on your writing itself, and further into more disciplinary writing. Certain assignments, such as analysis of a literary technique or researching a specific type of biological study, just might not hold any interest for you. This brings us to the second part of the code, to write what you know. If you really do not have any interest in a topic, try to find something that you have some background knowledge about. For example, if you are writing a paper on biological gene editing techniques, a field you find incredibly boring, you could start from a technique that you learned about in class and know the two-sentence, basic explanation of how it works. This gives you a starting point to develop the topic further, and you can expand on your prior knowledge with a little more direction in what to research. This may not bring as much enjoyment to the writing process as writing about your interests would, but having a basic foundation to build upon instead of learning about a totally new topic will make the process that much easier.
Writing What Makes Sense
If you get an assignment that you have no interest in and no knowledge about, you may feel like you are in for a truly horrible experience. Again, these assignments are usually more focused and likely based in a specific discipline. The last part of the advice I have for choosing a topic is to write about something that makes sense. When you have no idea what to choose for a topic and no knowledge base to work on, try to write about something that you agree with. If you are trying to analyze another author’s writing, try to pick a technique that you really see in his or her writing. If you are writing a research paper, write about research that makes sense to you, or something that you think could make sense once you read further into it. This might not make the writing process more enjoyable or significantly easier, but it will make your paper better. Writing about “The Effects of Chocolate Metabolites on Mood Elevation” would probably form a stronger argument than “Mood Elevation Based on Changes in Serotonin Reuptake.” Assuming that you know nothing about either topic, it is easier to believe that chocolate brings happiness compared to the activity of a random brain chemical. It is always easier to argue for something you believe than for something that you think is false or cannot understand.
All of these strategies can be taken with a grain of salt, as some of the best ideas come from a sudden light bulb turning on after minutes or hours of staring at that blank screen. But if you do not have that time, or do not think you will be able to come up with an idea, think “what do I like, what do I know, what makes sense?” Worst case scenario you will at least have an idea for a topic, and best case scenario you have a fun and engaging time writing what was initially a daunting task. And if all of these strategies fail, and you are still stuck? Phone a friend! Talking ideas over with someone else is a great way to organize your thoughts and pick out the best topics. And if you don’t have friends, don’t like your friends or want someone with a little more experience, come on down to your Writing Center! The tutors are all experienced with brainstorming and how to assist you in the process, and you will surely walk out of the appointment with an idea of how to start writing.
Contributed by: Ajay Kharkar, Writing Center intern