Finding Writing Topics in Unexpected Places

It’s the cement block that all writers carry on our backs: Finding writing topics. Recently that cement block has become even heavier, as you’ve probably discovered if you have a Twitter account, a blog or two, and a couple of editors who keep asking for articles.

Like many writers, I find Twitter especially challenging. Yes, it’s a marvelous tool for attracting potential readers, and it’s fun to use – I soon lost my fears about the dreaded 140-character limit.

But what am I going to Tweet about? This morning I ate breakfast, watered a couple of plants, and made plans to go out for pizza with my husband. If I find those tidbits of information boring, what are my readers going to think?

Even worse, my specialty – writing, grammar, and usage – does not lend itself to infinite variety. How many times can I write charmingly about, say, an indefinite pronoun reference? Once, if I’m lucky.

When I asked a technology-savvy friend for advice about posting on Twitter, he counseled me to simply keep reading Tweets from other users. Inspiration will come, he assured me. And he was right.

It finally dawned on me that there’s a marvelous tool right over my desk that can help me find topics to Tweet and blog about: My calendar. Still another great tool is delivered to my doorstep every day: The newspaper. And the radio in my car is another wonderful resource.

Let me begin with the calendar, a treasure trove of ideas for Tweets and blogs. One afternoon I sat down at my desk with a writing pad and calendar, looking at each month for events that might have a writing tie-in. It didn’t take long to find more than a dozen of them.

Of course there’s National Grammar Day (March 4). But what about the rest of the year? Well, I can Tweet about the apostrophe in New Year’s Day. When Easter rolls around, I’m planning to Tweet about jellybeans (one word or two?) and marshmallow Peeps (why the capital “P”?). You get the idea.

Let’s turn to the newspaper. Alas, there isn’t a single Republican Presidential candidate with a name ending in “s” (why did Mitch Daniels have to opt out of the primaries this year?). But a recent Blondie comic strip about the “Ditherses” (Julius Dithers is Dagwood’s boss) led to a post about plurals and apostrophes in family names.

A newspaper story quoted someone using the words preselect and preprune – inspiration for a blog about the overuse of pre. I’m enjoying this year’s presidential race because it’s providing a steady supply of gaffes and questionable grammatical constructions for Tweets and blog posts.

But what if you aren’t a grammarian? The answer is that you’ll probably find it even easier to unearth topics. For example, I have a website about police report writing. New Year’s Eve provides an opportunity to write about drunk driving. Breaking news stories can often be tied to report writing. Recently the White House instructed the Department of Justice to adopt a new definition of rape.

Gardening, parenting, teaching, sports, cooking…they all vary with the seasons, and they all show up in the news from time to time. I have a friend who writes adventure stories about terrorism – he can find plenty of material for Tweets and blog posts in the daily news. Another friend who recently wrote a juvenile novel about bullying has discovered an endless stream of news stories about the problem.

Still doubtful? You’re not the only one – but I’ll bet I can convince you. Just yesterday a friend who’s a physician’s assistant tried to convince me that medicine doesn’t vary with the calendar. Really? What about flu season, swimmer’s ear, hay fever, sunburn, icy sidewalks, and New Year’s resolutions to get healthier?

Here’s a starter list of resources you can browse for writing topics. What others can you think of?

  • a calendar that lists holidays and other special days
  • the daily comics in your newspaper
  • the in-house newsletter at your job
  • a stroll through a hardware store
  • a stroll through a grocery store
  • a stroll through a big box store, like Wal-Mart or Target

And here are some news sources with excellent websites you can visit for inspiration: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio.

This approach to finding writing topics works far better for me than traditional advice about “discovery exercises” – brainstorming, mind-mapping, the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why), and so on. Having taught college writing for 30 years and authored two writing textbooks, I’m an expert on all of these methods. And I’m here to tell you that they are…limited. And frustrating.

The problem? When you do a discovery exercise, you’re looking at a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen. The only input is what’s already in your brain. That’s great if ideas are flying so quickly that your pencil can’t write them down fast enough. The reality, though, is that the reason you sat down to do a discovery exercise in the first place is that you’re stuck for ideas.

Why not just open up a newspaper, flip the pages in a calendar, or visit a website that features commentaries on current events? I guarantee that in just a few minutes you’ll be running to your keyboard with at least three great ideas. And you’ll have fun doing it – a sure sign that you’re on your way to a successful writing experience.



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