The Trouble with Topics

Two Steps to Better Brainstorming for Your Next Writing Project

It’s a problem every writer faces: the blank screen (or page). Doesn’t matter whether you’re doing your first book or your fiftieth blog post, the sheer overwhelming blankness of the landscape gives your mind free rein to roam. And when you don’t know where you’re going, as Yogi Berra tells us, you’ll end up someplace else.

The other thing that can stop you in your tracks is your perception of how others have responded to your writing. Maybe your last few posts have garnered only cricket chirps. Maybe your last book (if you were so lucky as to complete and publish a book) didn’t receive much attention. Writers, like other creative people, will say they’re doing their thing for themselves—and they are—but no one is immune to a little ego, and our ego likes to have recognition.

So, we have two problems, really. One is the lack of a topic; the second is the lack of a popular topic. A popular topic may not solve all your issues, but it will give you a firm foothold in your potential reader’s all-too-brief attention span.

Instead of jumping headlong into the waters of blankness, let’s figure out what your readers want to read and then brainstorm topics from there.


1. Ask your readers what they want to know from you.

This is almost stupidly simple, but not everyone thinks of doing it. Use email or a service like SurveyMonkey and develop a few questions that will help you focus your subject matter and content. Generally, broad questions and multiple choice will work better than yes/no questions.

Linda Formichelli at Smartblogger has a great piece on learning what readers want. In it, she describes the four questions that will help you develop better targeted writing and give you an opportunity to go beyond your book or blog with other products.

  • What is your biggest challenge when it comes to X?
  • What level are you at in X (newbie, intermediate, pro)?
  • What’s missing out there? What product/service do you wish someone would create?
  • How do you prefer to learn (watching, listening, reading, doing, other)?

(Linda’s piece goes into more detail on how to do all this, and I highly recommend reading it.)

You can also ask your friends on Facebook. Assuming you’re on Facebook, this is a prime area to survey trusted business associates and professionals, as well as friends and family, on what you should cover in your writing. Use the four questions above in your Facebook post, and make sure you include a deadline—unless you want someone responding a year later when the post resurfaces on her timeline (not necessarily a bad thing). If you have both a business page and a personal profile, use both. You can adjust the wording as necessary.

Once you have your responses, you will have multiple topics and ideas to write on that you know are important to your readers, as well as ideas on how to expand your writing to other mediums and products.

2. Find out what’s trending online in your field or industry.

In addition to surveying your readers, it never hurts to get a larger perspective on what information and topics people are looking for and how you can apply those trends to your own expertise. Here are few of the tools you can use to determine trending topics and keywords.

Use Google Trends to see which keywords or key phrases, related to your industry or field, are popular right now. Refine the results by category and by country.

Check out Twitter to find out what’s trending now (under Trends on the side of your page). Both people (or Twitter profiles) and hashtags are listed here.

Buzzfeed displays what’s trending now on the side of its homepage. Use Buzzfeed’s trends for topics and keyword ideas. Buzzfeed has grown because its editors and writers follow trends and have learned how to write headlines that make people click on them. Learn from them.


Good luck on your next project!


Photo credit Aidan Meyer