Choose Your Next Article Topic With This Exercise

When I fall out of my writing habit, most often it’s because I can’t decide what to write about. Choosing an article topic can be paralyzing. Here’s an exercise I use to come up with new topics. Afterward, the issue is not that I have too little to write about, but too much.

When coding, you don’t let “not knowing what to code about” stop you, do you?

No, you have a process to turn bug reports and feature requests into code. Having a process for problem-solving, like design thinking, get’s you unstuck and gets you moving forward.(For more on solving coding problem deliberately, check out this post from Justin Fuller: How to understand any programming task.)

Writing can be the same. And it’s important to keep up, It’s been one of the best skills I’ve leveraged to improve my career.

Brainstorm Article Topics

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First, identify your topics.

There’s plenty of places to look for initial topic ideas:

  • What have you learned about recently? You could think of treating your blog as a public “personal wiki” of knowledge. Some of my most popular articles have come from me writing about problems so I’d remember how to solve them if they came up again.
  • What problems from recent projects have you tackled? Related to the first, but looking at a slightly different lens can lead to more ideas.
  • Has anyone asked you a good question recently? Think in and out of the office.
  • Have you had any interesting conversations, either online or offline?
  • Have your written something else that resonated? Maybe another blog post, tweet, or comment on a forum?
From there, you can build a list of potential topics. Think wide here. Your goal isn’t to come up with the best idea, but instead a list of possibilities. We’re brainstorming here.

Then, apply some “design patterns.”

Here’s a content marketing secret: There are only roughly a dozen different flavors of an article topic. Once you have a topic in mind, you can decide on a format.
  1. Question & Answer
  2. How-tos
  3. Next Actions
  4. Mistakes
  5. Lists
  6. Resources
  7. Sample
  8. Philosophical
  9. Motivational
  10. X vs Y
  11. Quick tips
  12. Case study

Now: Apply the Design Patterns to a topic

Once you have a topic, run it through the format gauntlet, and voila! Several new starting points for posts. Let’s take “refactoring a react components” because that’s one I pulled out of “recent challenges from work.”  Your topics might look something like this:

  1. (Q & A): When is refactoring a component a good idea?
  2. (How-to): How to refactor your complicated components into smaller, more manageable ones
  3. (Next Actions): Explaining the value of refactoring
  4. (Mistakes): Common mistakes that lead to less maintainable components
  5. (Lists): 7 signs your component should be refactored
  6. (Resources): Install this Atom Plugin to make Refactoring a breeze
  7. (Sample): Example of a component refactoring
  8. (Philosophical): Where Refactoring fits in the development process
  9. (Motivational): How to refactor legacy code without feeling overwhelmed
  10. (X vs. Y): Refactoring vs. Rewriting (oh wait, I already wrote that one: Should you repeal and replace your legacy code base?)
  11. (Quick Tips) 5 quick refactoring wins
  12. (Case Study) How refactoring shaves two weeks off of our next four feature releases
Here’s a worksheet you can use to make this exercise easier:

Overcoming Common Stumbling Blocks (AKA Debugging)

“My topic doesn’t mesh well with one or more of the formats.”

No worries. Skip it and continue moving forward. You’re going to come up with more potential topics then you could write so don’t sweat it.

“I don’t know how many points my list will have.”

Write “X” instead. You don’t have to know the exact count until the end.

“I started writing, and it went off the rails.” 

You don’t have to commit to these ideas. Sometimes I end up starting one article and finishing another.

“This topic is too long; I’ll never finish this!”

If something seems daunting, hammer the scope to a more specific topic. Sometimes the result is better. Would you rather read: “How to fix ‘ _reactNavigation.getNavigationActionCreators is not a function‘ error, or “How to debug JavaScript?”

“Writing about technical stuff is boring.” 

Articles don’t have to be technical. Plenty of developers also like reading about topics like soft skills and career tips.

“I’m not trying to be a guru here. Why am I acting like I’m the expert?” 

Your goal should be above all else, to be helpful. You aren’t writing for yourself; you are creating a small thing that can help someone else in the world. And isn’t that something we all enjoy doing?

“I Don’t know which topic to pick.” 

Short answer, whichever one you can write, finish and publish. You can’t help anyone if you don’t ship. The whole goal here is to get over the paralysis of not knowing what to write about. Just take some inventory, sketch out some ideas, and get started! The more you write, the more you’ll find you have to say. Writing is a marathon, and you can switch lanes at any point.

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