All writers occasionally grasp for topics. How often have you wondered what to blog about or what to write about when it comes time to create engaging content for your niche market? Many writers believe in waiting for inspiration to strike, which can certainly work, but such tactics carry risk. Rather than sitting and staring blankly into space, why not take the time to develop an inventory of nonfiction topics?
What to Blog About?
This exercise is adapted from the book The Curious Researcher by Boise State University professor Bruce Ballenger whose approach has shaped my practices as both a teacher and a writer. Whether you brainstorm on paper or at the computer is up to you.
- Consider the follow general topic categories: Controversies, Habits, History, Hobbies, Jobs, People, Places, Technologies, Things, Trends
- 15 Minutes: Make four columns and label each with the categories that appeal most to you. Now brainstorm words and phrases that reflect what you know and what you might like to know about it. Don’t hesitate! Once you run out of steam, choose another topic and start the process over in a new column.
- 10 Minutes: Take a short break. Now return and continue adding to your columns. This could even be completed over a few days. An added challenge would be to tackle all ten categories or to invent new ones as needed.
- Look over your material. Circle the topic that seems to have the most potential in terms of lending itself to further development and that you are genuinely curious about.
- 5 Minutes: Now make a list of questions that your writing could seek to answer about that topic. Now you have a preliminary topic that you can begin to focus for a draft of a blog post, personal essay, or informational nonfiction article.
Your topic inventory is never complete. Return to it from time to time or create one from scratch on a regular basis. Some of the best thoughts only occur when you set down to capture them on the page.
Loop writing is also a great technique that can be used in conjunction with this exercise.
A Quicker Inventory
Pressed for time? Here is a curtailed version of what’s above. This shortened version also works well for use with students.
- Turn a piece of paper sideways and label five columns with the following labels: Things I Love, Things I Hate, My Possessions, Trends (what’s popular), Values/Ideals (origins of beliefs)
- 5-7 Minutes: Jump back and forth between each column as you jot down words and phrases as they come to you.
- 1 Minute: Circle one item on each list that could become the topic for a personal essay where you attempt to voice your feelings on it.
- 15 Minutes: How has each circled item shaped or motivated you as a person? Cluster, list, or freewrite for three minutes on each of those five potential topics. Get down anything and everything that pops into your mind.
- Now put a star by the topic you will most likely develop.
This exercise also lends itself to group discussion when done in an educational or work-training setting.
What about you? How do you plan what to blog about?
Image Credit: Information Area by Kenneth Fiske and Information-Symbol by George Hodan
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013.
What an inspirational post full of super helpful tips. Being a novice to writing I am constantly struggling finding the inspiration needed. Absolutely love the list of categories in point 1 and by just glancing at it, a few new topics just poped up in my head.
I love these kinds of posts. We can all use these tips! 🙂
Cheryl, I’m glad you like my tip posts 🙂
Very good advice.
Charles, I hope you find the inventory topic how-to useful. I still need to create an official blogging calendar to keep track of all my topic ideas I get from exercises like today’s post 😉
Fantastic tips and tricks! I love how you break it down in such an easy to understand manner. I’m definitely going to try it out the next time I encounter writer’s block!
Vrindavan, welcome 🙂 Do let me know if you ever give the topic inventory exercise a try.
Cool post! I gotta try it… Now with just starting a new blog, i sometimes feel overwhelmed because i have SO many things i want to say that i end up overwhelmed and NOT saying anything LOL. Thanks for sharing your tactic – it should work well for me at this stage.
I’d also like to add something – if you are active on social media (“you” being everyone who blogs regularly, person or business, doesn’t matter), FB comments and tweets can be a great source of topics; and so can be blog comments, emails from readers, questions from clients, etc. I have always found this very resourceful for my blogs’ editorials 😀
Diana, that’s such a good idea and one I find I tend to fall down in. Every time I get an idea for a timely topic related to a trending topic, I end up missing the boat. Probably because I’m so set on writing my posts two weeks in advance. Leaving more wiggle room would help alleviate that. Hmmm, I think I’ve just set yet another blogging goal for myself.
Glad i could help as well. 😀
I liked your tactic idea so much that i referenced it in my latest blog post about blog editorial – check it out whenever you have the time 😉 Have a great weekend!
Diana, I just read your post and loved it. Thanks so much for linking back to this post.
This is coming at the perfect time for me. I’m planning an editorial calendar so that I can stop struggling with blog topics. I’m definitely going to try this today.
Trinidad, you’re the second person who’s mentioned an editorial calendar. I really need to look into doing so as well. I’ve heard of a few WordPress plug-ins for that very purpose, so maybe now I’ll be more inclined to check them out.
I love the little exercises you write about. They are always so helpful and get my mind flowing.
Krystle, thanks so much. If only you could witness a writing class as taught by Bruce Ballenger. He’s the source for this particular exercise. He really does make the writing process fun and accessible.
This is such a good idea. I make a list of future topics on a whiteboard as they come to mind. I like this approach because it will broaden my subjects/ideas and increase my future post opportunities. 🙂
Susan, I tend to keep a running list of ideas in a notebook, but as my vision for my blog continues to evolve, I know I will benefit from sitting down and doing this topic inventory when the time is right.
Great post Jeri. This is a great way to keep yourself from getting stuck in the dreaded writers block.
A topic I’d like to recommend, Things That I Fear. If you fear them then there are likely countless others with the same fears and who want to know they aren’t alone. Or who want to know how to get over that fear.
Thanks for sharing.
~ Johnny Bravo
Johnny, I can certainly see how things that a person fears would make a great resource for topics. Montaigne, the father of the personal essay, wrote on all manner of such things. After all, bloggers are nothing more than modern day essayists 🙂
So true. I can only imagine what the world would be like today if the great writers of past had our same access to share knowledge.
Johnny, so true. What would the minds of Shakespeare and Montaigne spin given access to such tools as we have today? Or maybe their brains would be so stimulated with those tools as to be unable to produce the same type of prose.
That’s the best peice of advice I’ve seen in a long time – the dreaded writers block springs at any time and without warning! Usually for me it resolves itself at 2am when there is no pen is sight lol.
I love the columns ideas, will definately give this one a go 🙂
Lisa, greetings and thanks for stopping by! It really is a great exercise for writer’s block.
That is a great post Jeri!
Never thought about this kind of method of writing a blog.
Reut, so glad to see you among the new faces stopping by my blog today 🙂 🙂
Can I just say I feel awkward and sluggish in your presence? This is great! There have been so many times where I scratch my head wondering what the heck am I going to share with people…something of interest. This is a great idea and I’ll keep this in mind. I should get a spiral devoted to my columns. Thanks for sharing, Jeri.
Denise, by all means get a notebook and start brainstorming away. Then you have more topics than you know what to do with. I get so many nonfiction topics, but I tend to struggle in coming up with fiction topics I must pursue.
I usually use a file in evernote to write down ideas as they come to me. I have lost count of the stuff I have lost because I forget to write it all down.
I like the method you outline for exploring different ideas. Sometimes we can get an idea but have no idea of the direction to take it.
Jon, I’ve yet to try evernote or any note taking app or program for that matter. I will freewrite in word, and I type all of major stuff, but I guess when it comes to brainstorming I’m still largely a do-it-by-hand person.
I don’t have a hard time coming up with topics – where I hesitate is in fleshing out the topic – is it good enough? did I say enough? Am I authoritative enough to talk on the topic?
This is wonderful: “Some of the best thoughts only occur when you set down to capture them on the page.” I love when that does happen – I finally start writing, and the rest flows nicely.
Leora, your comment has given me an idea for a future blog post on writing detailed topics, so thanks!
Hmmm, where to start.
I have a very little black book where I write ideas and the oul galaxy smartphone helps. Articles are seasonal and search analysis based.
I do use a spreadsheet with more in-depth details for analysis. That’s the sad me 🙂
Paul, it always amazes me how the writing process is so unique to each author, and to think the process gets taught as successive steps in school!
I’m less systematic, but I do jot down ideas and flesh them out later so that I have a “pantry” of blog posts. I’ve even done this for a client. I filled her pantry and talked to her about how to turn a kernel of an idea into a blog post.
Not long after I started blogging, I decided to blog every day for the month of February. One month of daily posts made my bi-weekly posts seem so much easier! LOL… Yes, I know I chose February, but it’s not really all that much shorter than January or March.
Candy, I admire anyone who takes on a blog a day challenge. I’ve done it once, probably won’t do it again, but I’m so glad I did.
This is great! I plan out my blog posts with an editorial calendar (although I don’t always follow it). It is set up in grid form with the months across the top and categories along the side. Once I start filling in, the ideas start coming. I’m probably not explaining it well but since my blog is about parties and entertaining it works because I follow the seasons/holidays.
Karen, I can totally picture the editorial calendar that you’re describing. I use a big desk calendar in a similar fashion, though I am still working on the various categories I incorporate.
These are some great tips…I have signed up to get them in my e-mail!
Veronica, thanks for visiting and it’s good to hear you’ve sign-up for my posts!
Lots of good ideas here to keep blogs moving, or indeed, any type of writing work. Planning ahead is necessary since we all run into dry spells, and it’s good to have a few things in your back pocket. These are great tips that I’m taking note of!
Krystyna, dry spells are the worst. I fear that when I move I’ll be needed to have some topics and post squirrel away for the inevitable lack of inspiration that will follow.
Very good exercise. I keep a running list going in Excel and jot down new ideas as they pop into my head. It’s so important to write them down quickly or they’ll disappear as soon as they appear! Based on the list, I still have a couple of hundred more blog topics 🙂
Dan, that is certainly an impressive list. I think most of us are the same when it comes to losing ideas if we don’t write them down quickly.
I definitely needed this tip! I’m always writing blog posts but they haven’t been regular if you know what I mean. This is defintiely inspiring me to step up my game~
Jessica, once your inventory of topics is in place, you will be able to better place those topics on a calendar and wind up with a regular posting schedule you can stick to.
Great idea Jeri! Its always hard to come up with topics that interest you, that you can write enough about and that would appeal to readers. I like your advice here about brainstorming and using keywords and asking questions. Very good project to do to come up with a variety of topics. Thanks!
Kelly, asking questions is probably my favorite way of really digging into potential topics.
Having an editorial “calendar” relieves the pressure of having to come up with a post without an idea in your head. I hit a dry spell a while back and simply started a new Word document and did a brain dump of potential ideas. I was surprised myself to see how many were lurking in the back of my head. I don’t schedule the posts because I like to write “opportunistic” posts when I see something in the news or a new social media study comes out that I want to bring to the attention of my readers. A few posts ago, I wrote about types of post headlines after seeing a bad headline on a billboard in front of a beauty salon in my neighborhood. Inspiration can come from anywhere!
Jeannette, topics really can come from anywhere. Sometimes it seems some of my better posts end up being the more spur of the moment ones.