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  • Diana Schneidman

What to write about? Choosing the “perfect” topic

When I was a child, I never dreamed . . . or nightmared . . . that I would write essays professionally when I grew up . . . especially if I had to think up my own topics. Oh horrors!

It would have been more to my liking to be a TV star. Looked easy if only I could twitch my nose without moving the rest of my face like Samantha on Bewitched.

Or I could be a nurse. Especially if I could work with Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare.

Or maybe some day I would staff the first McDonald’s on the moon. (Wonder how they’ll keep the burgers from floating off into space.)

Yet here I am, regularly writing blog posts and articles as part of my work.

When I was in school, composing original essays or poems was absolutely the worst type of homework (although creating 3-D projects for display on my desk at parent open houses was also pretty horrible for someone as artistically challenged as I am).

And the worst part of the worst homework was thinking of something to write about.

So I’d find myself procrastinating till the last minute, with only a sensation of panic to keep me from falling asleep over my paper.

Setting the stage

From the fourth through eighth grades, teachers would set aside several days at the end of each grading period for us to read our original essays to the class.

I was introverted and studious. Very sensitive to criticism. And several of the other kids were cliquish and mean. Remember Lord of the Flies by William Golding? Yes, like that. (Fortunately, this was before Facebook so their evil bullying was not revealed to the world.)

The purpose of this cruel assignment was, I believe, to fill up the teachers’ lesson plans. “Fourth period, Monday through Friday: Read and critique essays.” Saved the teacher from outlining a class presentation. And this handy class format relieved the teacher of reading and grading essays outside of class.

I certainly never got any thoughtful suggestions on restructuring my paper or expressing myself more effectively.

Frankly, it never occurred to me that such feedback was possible. Instead, I saw each assignment and each element within each assignment as either done right or done wrong, with the quantity of red ink as the measure of failure.

Nor did I think that the teachers were looking for creativity. They never suggested that they were open to anything different from the usual, and they couldn’t have been interested in exposing deep emotion in such a dangerous setting.

The teachers rarely assigned a theme for the writing. Allegedly this was to allow us more freedom to express ourselves, but in practice, it made their job even easier.

So I’d ask my mom for ideas.

“Why don’t you write about your family?” she’d say.

“No, that’s stupid.”

“Why don’t you write about a book you like?”

“No, that’s stupid.”

And on it would go.

Every topic seemed stupid, not cool. Because I had no idea what was cool. I knew I wasn’t and other kids were, but I had no idea what they would like unless it was something particularly shallow and exceptionally immature.

So finally I’d choose a topic the night before the assignment was due and write it up. Something safe and generally calendar specific, such as what I am thankful for or why I like spring.

Not cool enough but I needed to get something on paper.

Writing blog entries and newsletter articles presents almost the same dilemmas today, although there are more holidays to write about, most of them invented by publicists for various industries.

Here are some current observations on how to come up with concepts for blogging and article writing.

1. The narrower your objective, the easier it is to generate an idea. You know immediately if each idea fits or not. Of course, on the downside, the more frequently you publish, the more often you sit down at the computer afraid your idea well has run dry.

2. Learn to deal with the fear that people will judge you as uncool. It shouldn’t be an issue now that I am out of the harsh prison called elementary school. But the essential issue—what do others think—still pricks at my psyche from time to time.

I know I should just “be myself,” but I’m still finding out who myself is. Being cool is difficult. Being myself amid strangers is equally difficult.

3. Be on the lookout for themes all the time. I remind myself that I need to write a post the next day as I go to sleep, inspiring relevant dreams. I keep a pad of paper and a pencil on the nightstand for quick notes in the middle of the night.

I train myself to think of topics during the day as well. Every time I read or hear something that sparks my interest, I ask myself if it could be a topic and write it down. At this point I have a stack of papers two inches thick, some of these papers with as few as six words.

4. Grab some topic quickly and start writing. It’s the treatment that makes an entry effective, much more so than the idea. So don’t keep stalling until the perfectly cool idea strikes.

5. Sometimes a half-written piece (or not yet written piece) has to be put aside. It may take days or even weeks to shape vague sensations and scattered thoughts into a useful piece. If this is the case, put it aside and let the ideas germinate.

6. Find your own style—and allow yourself space to do this. Not only does it sometimes take time to make a specific topic work, but it also takes time to make sense of the whole blogging thing, especially if you don’t already have a writing habit. No matter what your initial aim—whether strategic publicity or nonstrategic self-expression—the content will unfold in its own sweet way.

I see I have written a mere six observations and yet they somewhat contradict each other. Claim your topic quickly but allow it to gel over time. Narrowing your strategy makes it easier to develop topics . . . unless it doesn’t.

Blogging and article writing, like life itself, is messy.

Originally posted 1-31-10

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