Determining the subject and focus of a writing project; the foundation upon which a composition is constructed. Or, in two words or less: idea discovery.
What do they want from me?
Many people begin college composition class assignments with this question, although not many will say it out loud. Well, what do they want from you? First, ask yourself, who is "they"? For many people the only possible "they" is the instructor, but that is not completely true. Behind that instructor is every writing teacher the instructor ever had; the university's general education goals for that class, which can be quite specific; writing theorists the instructor may have read; and of course, the other people in your class who will certainly be reading your writing in peer revision groups. In other words, instead of a single instructor to please, you have an audience.
Luckily, as spokesperson for this audience your instructor has given you a map of sorts -- the assignment sheet. Read this carefully. After reading it, read it again, only this time use a colored marker to highlight key points such as when it's due, page count, type of writing (genre), style (MLA, APA...), and most importantly, anything resembling an ingredients list. If your instructor has given you a bulleted list, you're home free. This is honestly what "they" want.
What if the assignment is vague or uses terms you find unfamiliar? That can happen. What you do then is ask questions, preferably in class when the instructor is going over the assignment for the first time. This may sound obvious, but some students enter college with remnants of the "be cool" attitude left over from high school where sometimes, not always, but sometimes, asking questions was seen as "dumb" or "sucking up" and greeted by eye-rolling or worse by other students. A university is different. Asking questions is what successful students do, and if you have thought of the question, chances are many others in the class have thought of it too and will be grateful that someone spoke up. The instructor will be glad too--questions mean you're paying attention and care whether or not the class goes well for you.
What do I know?
In anything that you choose to write about, you will have some sort of advanced knowledge. It may not be much, but it will give you a spring-board to a starting point in your research.
- For instance, if your topic is World War II, think about the key names of leaders and maybe some places involved: Winston Churchill, D-Day, Blitzkrieg. You don't have to know much about a topic, but you can get a start without opening a book if you just think about what you already know. You will probably not know specific statistics or dates at first, but you will know where to start.
- Another topic you might choose is climate change. Think about the key names of leaders and maybe some terms involved: Al Gore, car emissions, the polar icecaps. Again, you don’t have to know much about a topic; you just think about what you already know.
What do I need to find out?
- Once you have your general topic—like World War II (WWII), for instance—and you’ve established what you already know about it, then you need to determine what it is you would like to know more about it. Because WWII is too vast a subject to read or write about with any detail for the purposes of your instructor’s assignment, you need to narrow your focus to something more specific about WWII. For instance, you may have jotted down “symbols” when writing down what you already know about the topic. Therefore, you might decide that you want to know more about what kind of symbols were used during WWII and, even more specifically, what kind of symbols were used by the Nazis to mark their enemies. So you look through a book about WWII, or you google “WWII symbols,” and you learn that the colors and shapes determined what the wearer's offense was according to the Nazis. If you decide at this point that you want this to be the specific subject of your paper, then you need to learn as much as you can about the symbols as it relates to WWII, but be wary still that even this topic may be too large for a short paper (i.e. 5-10 pages). Your subsequent research can be narrowed, however, by asking yourself questions like some of the following: When and why were they designed? What was its function for the wearer and the Nazis? What were the different symbols used for? Which symbol was most used and why? and so on. From there you need to decide on a specific question that you wish to answer in your paper, do the necessary research for that question, and then begin the writing process.
- Let's speak to the other sample topic of climate change. You may have jotted down “ozone” when writing down what you already know about the topic. Therefore, you might decide that you want to know more about the ozone layer. So you look through a book about climate change, or you Google “climate change + causes” and you learn by filtering through various sources that may or may not be biased in their reporting.
What is the point of the paper?
Have you ever seen a preview for a movie that was misleading? You thought you were going to see a movie about guys having an adventure in the wilderness and how they survive only to discover the movie is really a documentary about a family of ants. The disappointment and misunderstanding that follows is what your audience will feel like if your topic is not specific, and if the rest of your paper does not make good on the promise of your introductory paragraph, which should give a clear preview of the rest of your paper.
The point of your paper is to reveal to your audience the details and information about your particular topic. The specific question that you want to answer about your topic will therefore guide your entire paper. The answer is sometimes called a thesis, and much of the writing you will do in university classes is thesis-driven writing. Once you know what your thesis is, you can then make sure that everything in the paper connects to it in some way. The goal is for your paper to look and sound like a crystal stream instead of a muddy ocean. There may be many things that you are interested in discussing in your paper. However, a paper must have one focus (or thesis) to sound clear.
Once you have your thesis, some of the following brainstorming ideas may be helpful to determine what best fits under your topic. Brainstorming will also help you expand the sub-points. Every topic has the option of a variety of sub-topics, but not all sub-topics go together. You need to decide which sub-topics answer the main question that you are trying to answer. Even if you are really attached to a particular sub-topic -- which at some point you will be -- cut it out! Think of it as the bad boyfriend or girlfriend that you can't seem to let go of, yet you know that letting go is the best choice for everyone involved. Break up with that sub-topic and never look back!
Sources of Inspiration
Many times an instructor will give you the option of choosing your topic for an assignment. This can be a daunting task for anyone. Sometimes having a choice of everything is so big that you end up not being able to think of anything to write about! However, just look around. Something is bound to spark your interest and give you a good starting idea for your assignment. Any of the following can be sources rich with inspiration for topics to write about:
- Other Media (i.e. newspapers, magazines, television, internet-browsing, etc.)
- Your dreams, whether real-life occupational/career goals, personal wishes/wants, or even those you have while sleeping or staring out the window while driving, can frequently contain topics or ideas worthy of writing about.
- Thinking about who you are and the experiences that inform your identity can be a fruitful exercise for coming up with writing topics or ways to approach a particular topic.
- Personal Interests: Favorite recent movie: The Martian because I cried at the end of the book and for once the movie got it right. Favorite sport to watch: soccer because I like the agility, speed, and endurance levels of the players. I also like it that it’s not overly violent and it has international appeal. Favorite sport to play: volleyball because I associate it with beaches, summer, family and friends getting together. Favorite TV show: CSI because I learn something every time—it’s the science instruction I never had. I also love it that the main character gets excited about and seems to know everything about bugs. Favorite piece of nonfiction: Brain Droppings by George Carlin because George is hilarious while dissecting the English language, society, and taboo subjects. Favorite popular fiction book: the Harry Potter series because it’s clever and it transports me. Plus, I love it because it led kids to love reading. Favorite Magazine: Entertainment Weekly because I enjoy consuming popular culture during my down time and the writers of that magazine manage to be smart and provocative about pop culture. Favorite kind of music: Lady Gaga because she’s talented musically, and her lyrics connect to my life. Favorite kind of vacation: beach because I like to get up really early and walk on the beach to watch the sun rise, because I love seafood, sea breeze, salt water, sand, sun, breakfast on the terrace overlooking the ocean, because I love dinner on the terrace overlooking the ocean; I love the waves and the unending movement of the seas. Favorite type of food: Asian because I adore all kinds of vegetables, really enjoy hot food, and like the experience of eating with chopsticks.
- Keep track of your ideas and emotions on a regular basis. These thoughts can be the starting point for an assignment or may provide those extra details needed to make the paper more effective. Through tons of research, keeping a journal has been proven to help your writing for personal or academic papers. Reflecting on things around you as well as things you read and talk about in class will point you in the direction you need to go to improve your writing skills.
- Discussions with family, friends, colleagues, etc.
- "Staring down the Spines": Go to the library. Stand amongst the shelves of the topic you are going to write about. Staring at or reading the spines of these books can often initiate an inspiration or two.
Use Pre-writing to:
- think more clearly
- establish the beginning of your paper
- keep track of your ideas
- organize your ideas into a conducive paper
- practice expressing yourself in writing
The following are techniques that can aid in the composition process, either in coming up with ideas or in working through various obstacles along the way:
- Listing allows the writer to accomplish several important tasks:
- Finding a topic
- Determining whether you have enough information for a topic before proceeding: After narrowing down your topic, create a list with everything
- Narrowing the topic: If writing about World War II, for example, the focus will need to be on a specific component of WWII or there will be too much information. Make a list of everything you know about WWII. Then decide which topic interests you the most by crossing of those topics that don't interest you as much.
- Listing allows the writer to accomplish several important tasks:
- Similar to listing, only in this case you simply start writing in sentence form literally anything that comes to mind in context of thinking about your topic and/or assignment.
- Seriously! Taking a 5-10 minute nap can help rejuvenate the mind and relax you enough to release the tension that comes with writing.
- Finding a place where you can sit in silence for 5-10 minutes and simply focusing on nothing but your breathing can be a surprisingly effective means of "silencing the noise" in your mind prior to writing, allowing you to better focus on the task at hand without internal distractions.
- Mini-computer games:
- When stuck on a topic or during writing, playing simple but repetitive computer games like Minesweeper can help relax the mind (i.e. it serves as a kind of meditation).
- This form of prewriting is geared more toward organization. It groups your thoughts into a definite main point and the supporting detail. So using the topic of "Badges," the outline would being as follows:
The thing to remember about outlining is that you can't have a support with only one compliment. If you have an "A." then you have to have a "B."
- Clustering is a primarily visual form of pre-writing. You start out with a central idea written in the middle of the page. You can then form main ideas which stem from the central idea. In this case, you've narrowed the topic down to "Badges." The ideas stemming from that central idea are all having to do with the central idea, but different aspects of that idea. Once the main ideas contain enough information for you to write about, you can determine in what order you will present the ideas in your paper.
- Storyboarding functions in much the same way as Clustering-Brainstorming. It has definite advantages, though. In storyboarding, the ideas are written on note cards in much the same way a Hollywood screenplay is organized. In this instance, you can write information you have gathered about World War II symbols/badges. For instance, say in your research, you find information on rebellions against badges. You can write all of that information on a note card, but make sure you make a note as to where the information came from so that you can easily go back and check your sources and cite them properly. The next note card will cover another topic, say, types of badges and the employment of those badges. The next card can cover the beginnings of their use, and so on.
Prewriting for even 5 to 20 minutes can help you establish what you already know about a paper topic, as well as aid you in discovering where you would like to go with a paper (i.e. what you want to know). Doing so can often help prevent you from committing to superficial and/or mundane responses. Prewriting can help you find strong, thoughtful, and clear answers to questions posed by either the assignment or by your consideration of it. It can reveal to you those potential areas of personal interest within the writing task: in a manner of speaking, prewriting enables you to "discover" yourself within the context of your topic. It can also help you nail down responses--to move ideas from short-term memory into long-term or written memory--so that you can get to the work of writing rather than trying to remember what it is you want to say. That is, your thinking is often more clear and better focused when engaged in actual writing. As such, prewriting can act as a tool to stave off or break through what is commonly called "writer's block."