One of the best tips I’ve picked up about writing so far is to make a list of writing topics. This doesn’t need to be done in any sort of fancy way, but it makes great common sense. There are inevitably going to come times when you’d like to sit down to write, but have no specific idea in mind – or worse, you’re struck with writer’s block. Having several possible writing topics at your fingertips will help you during those moments. Your list (or lists) will also save you from losing good ideas in the future, which tend to slip out of your mind if not written down.
This article attempts to address the two main ways of keeping an idea list: on paper and on your computer. I personally prefer to use both, for reasons I’ll explain further on in the article. For you savvy writers who already maintain a writing topics list, I’ll also provide some tips on maximizing your ideas and using your list in additional ways.
Writing Topics Lists – On Paper
The classic way of keeping a list is on paper. Maybe you keep a small pad in your pocket or purse, and jot down any idea that strikes. This is a great way of keeping track of your ideas on the go. A trip to the mall, for example, can be an idea goldmine. You can make a note of trends you see in clothing stores, cool new gadgets, bestselling books, or food court fare. Without writing them down, a good majority of these ideas would be out of your head before you even made it back home.
Everyone takes notes a little differently. If you’re detailed, you might want to write down the general idea with some subheadings or questions you want to ask or answer about the topic. Using the mall example again, you might notice a particular color is really stylish this season as you browse in different stores. A detailed note-taker might not only write down the name of the color, but also include information about the types of clothing available in the color, which designers’ clothes in that color are best, or what colors match well with it. A simple note taker might just write down “cobalt blue” or whatever that trendy color happens to be. One isn’t necessarily better than the other.
Detailed note-taking includes brainstorming and setting up your articles on the spot, to an extent. By including additional details, you’re also thinking up different ways to talk about a subject. It might be helpful to ask yourself questions as well – who can wear that color? What skin tones should stay away from it? What colors clash? Which fabrics is the color available in? Which fashion magazines predicted the trend? Which celebrities have been spotted wearing the color? It’s nice being able to answer these questions at the same time as you write down the topic itself, as this will save you from thinking up ideas later.
On the other side of the coin, taking simple notes is effective in other ways. Standing inside a clothing store asking yourself 75 questions about a shirt will keep you from taking notice of other trends on the racks, and will annoy whoever you’re shopping with. Just jotting down a few words will allow you to pull in a greater range of ideas. This also works out when you refer to your list at writing time, since re-reading the writing topic will inevitably give you ideas on how to use it Those ideas might differ every time you look at your list, too.
Let’s say you wrote down “dinner parties” as a potential writing topic. One day you might decide to write about how to host a dinner party, then a few weeks later that same note in your list might inspire you to write about gifts to bring to a dinner party. A detailed note-taker could have written down 50 article ideas about dinner parties as soon as the topic idea struck them, but the simple note-taker could have used that time to come up with 50 totally different writing topics instead.
You don’t have to stick to one kind of note-taking all the time, either. You might benefit from making detailed notes about writing topics you’re not an expert in, and keeping it simple with your special interests or hobbies – or vice versa. One of the most wonderful things about the creative process is that it’s a little different for everyone, so you can mix and match to meet your needs.
Writing Topics Lists – On Your Computer
Your computer is where you do most of your writing, why not keep your writing topics list there? I keep an OpenOffice document on my computer, aptly titled “Ideas”. Anytime an idea strikes that I’m unable to write about immediately, it goes into the file. This helps me pick up on a lot of interesting topic ideas from around the web whether I’m shopping, doing research, working, whatever. The ideas add up pretty quickly – using this method I have more article ideas than I’ll probably ever have time to use, with more making the list every day. The internet is a really powerful tool for information, and as a writer you can use it to squeeze out lots of content.
I often use my other documents as a makeshift idea list. As I write, I often think up ideas within the same topic. I’ll type them right into the document, under the article I’m writing. This helps me refer to the idea later. I also find this helps me work on multiple articles about a topic simultaneously. This could be very helpful to writers who like to link similar articles to each other: publish the “main” article, then link to it in the other articles associated with that topic. I’ve also found that this gives me something to “do” with extra ideas or tangents that stray from an article’s focus, but are still somewhat on-topic. Just a few taps on the “Enter” key and that work is saved and ready for use on another article. I realize this strategy might seem confusing or messy to some people, but it works for me.
Another incredibly good use for the computer list approach to writing topics is for research purposes. If you’re reading an interesting news article, you can use it twice. First, type the topic into your list. Then, copy and paste the link to the article itself into your list. If you choose to write about the topic, you won’t need to search for the article again and you’ll have a source at the ready. This will save you lots of time otherwise wasted digging through bookmarks or navigating search engine results to find the exact same item. Running your topic idea through a keyword tool may give you a list of synonyms or similar terms to place in your list for later use, or can tell you which ideas stand to be the most popular (or profitable).
Writing Topics Lists – Try Both!
Like I said about the differences between note-taking styles, keeping track of potential writing topics doesn’t have to stick to one medium. I use a notebook and my computer to jot down writing topics. I find the computer to be more efficient, since I can just copy and paste topics from whatever I’m reading. I also use my browser bookmarks to help me keep topics straight, but that’s another story altogether.
I may spend a lot of time at the computer, but not ALL my time. This is where keeping a notebook or other paper list comes in very handy. I’ve already mentioned the benefits of keeping a notepad for your time spent on the go – since writers are such observant people in general, even a trip to the supermarket could net lots of writing topics. Keeping a notebook handy while you watch television, read, or any other activities can be helpful too. You might realize how much you hate those Geico commercials and make up your mind to write about it, for example. I’m often a troubled sleeper, so keeping a notebook by the bed works for me. I get some of my best ideas while I’m lying there trying to sleep.
As a final tip, I never delete or cross out any writing topics that make it onto my list. There is almost always something else that can be said about a topic, and you never know when that will strike you. Even if you never wind up using a topic, there’s no harm in keeping it in your idea arsenal. The more ideas you have at your disposal, the less likely it is that you’ll encounter writer’s block.
Do you currently keep a list of writing topics? Have any tips of your own to offer other writers? Feel free to comment below!