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First of all, thanks for hanging in there with me during National Poetry Month while I scratched my poetry itch. Second of all, there are no boring topics, just boring writers. How many times have you started an article, blog post, or school assignment only to feel like you can’t possibly offer any new insights on a topic that’s been done to death? Both of today’s exercises appear in Bruce Ballenger’s book The Curious Researcher. The first will loosen your writing muscles; the second will exercise your talents. Each can be done alone, but lend themselves to a group setting.

Miniature Room at Chicago Art Institute

The Myth of the Boring Topic

When done with others, each group should receive a different common object, such as a pair of socks, spoon, can of cat food, pencil, candle, Q-tips, etc. If you’re on your own, grab the first thing you see on your desk. Remember that as a writer it is your responsibility to find interest in the ordinary. Of all people, writers most need to keep the innate ability to wonder alive.

  • Brainstorm a list of obvious and not so obvious questions that can be asked about your common object. Some are bound to be silly, but try steer your questions toward its history, uses, impact, or how its made. Do this for at least 20 minutes.
  • If you’re in a group setting, you would then switch objects and lists with another group and spend five more minutes adding new questions to their list.
  • Return to your list. Choose the question that is both researchable and interesting. Does it open your mind up to wonderment?

Finding the Questions

Too often, writers fall back on insisting their readers just aren’t “getting it” when a certain aspect of an article or story doesn’t seem to be coming across. In reality, no piece of writing is complete until another person has read it. Just because something is clear in the writer’s mind, doesn’t necessarily mean that point is getting across to some or all of their readers.

When I critique a manuscript, my goal is to relentlessly question the writer to pinpoint issues with clarity. A good writer should always anticipate questions their readers might have. If a reader senses too many gaps, the writer should revise as needed. I use this exercise often to explore questions that may arise as I write both fiction and nonfiction. This exercise is well-suited to a large group activity, especially when large pieces of newsprint are taped to the wall and used to generate the brainstorm questions.

  • Put your tentative topic or story idea at the top of your page.
  • Briefly describe why you picked that idea. What’s the appeal?
  • List what you already know: Who, what, when, where, why, and how.
  • Brainstorm questions about your topic that you can answer through research.
  • If in a group, look around at the variety of topics and questions on the wall. Now go around the room and add one new question and also put a star by the one question that you find most interesting.

Picture of thinking monkey

Hopefully, you have at least one other soul with whom you share your brainstorms and roughest ideas. Critique partners can serve as sounding boards for what is and isn’t working in a draft.  The writing process is so often inward when we could easily look outward to help each other generate ideas as well as gain inspirations from the ideas of others.

Beyond sharing with a critique partner, consider joining a writer’s workshop. It can be intimidating at first, but your writing will improve by leaps and bounds. Patience must come into play when belonging to a larger group as a longer time will pass before your draft is up for evaluation. However, remember learning how to give feedback to others also improves your ability to judge the merit of your own work.

What techniques have you used to explore potential writing topics? Who do you seek feedback from before hitting that publish button?

Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the library image in this post.

Thinking Monkey image appears courtesy of Petr Kratochvil

Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB

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