Writing: Choosing a Topic

A topic isn't something you find lying on the ground or hanging in a fruit tree with apples. You might have to dig for it, and you certainly have to pick it, but a topic is most likely to come from inside you. Anyone who writes for a living will tell you why: you write best about what you know best.

Once you've composed school essays for years, you might take choosing a topic for granted, but that will only lead to poor essays. The best writing always happens after you've thought clearly about what you want to say, why it's important, and how you plan to say it.

Thinking about a topic and making sure you've got a good one makes the rest of the work infinitely more easy. Kids often complain about not being able to come up with enough content, but what really upsets them is the fact that they didn't take enough time to develop a good topic before they started writing.

Why does choosing a topic make such a difference, and how do you choose one? The first question is easily answered: all good writing is the result of good thinking, and choosing a clear and manageable topic will help focus your mind. If your topic is too vague or confusing, your writing will end up vague and confusing as well.

The second question is a bit more difficult. There's no definitive set of rules for selecting a topic to write about, no guidelines that work in every situtation. At the same time, you can be sure of one thing—the best topics you pick will always be ones you already know something about or have an interest in.

Let's say you need to write a science essay. If you don't like chemistry, why would you write about it? If you enjoy studying physics, why wouldn't you write about it? What would you have to say about a topic you hated, or knew nothing about? But if you pick a topic you're familiar with, you'll have plenty of useful material and your writing will be far more interesting.

One of the main reasons you want to write about what you know is that it allows you to write in detail. Too many writers bite off more than they can chew, and readers are left with little knowledge and even less interest. Particularity is what differentiates a fantastic essay and every other kind.

If you like baseball, then, write about baseball. But don't just write about baseball in general: write about the Texas Rangers, or the work that goes into maintaining a stadium, or Nolan Ryan, or Japanese ball clubs. And add as many details as you can: if your readers can smell the fresh cut grass of the diamond, see the Babe hitting a home run, or feel the October heat out in left field, they'll be much more interested in whatever idea you're trying to get across.

Choosing a topic isn't only about having a specific focus. An essay that doesn't have anything meaningful or worthwhile to say is just as difficult to read as an essay that has no clear topic. That means you have to pick a topic on which you have an opinion you can defend. Again, if you're writing about baseball, are you simply trying to describe some aspect of the game, or do you want people to see how much work goes into it, why stats are important, or how baseball affects everyday life in America?

These are important questions and issues whether you're in fourth grade or graduate school. A good essay (whether written for school or any other reason) begins in a definite place, proceeds clearly through only the pertinent material, and ends with a clear statement of some kind. The only way to acheive this clarity is to choose a topic, go through the hard work of paring it down to manageable size, and using the topic to say something important or meaningful.

It's essential that you pick your topic before you begin writing. Otherwise, you'll be trying to sort things out while simultaneously trying to put them into shape on the page, and your writing will become unwieldy. But, choose your topic before you begin, think hard about it, and set out with a clear goal in mind, and your writing will be clear, powerful, and far more interesting than most of the stuff teachers and editors are forced to read for a living.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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