University Learning Center

Coming Up With Your Topic

Informal Strategies

Once you've chosen an idea to write about, you'll need to start considering the next step-where to take it, how to concentrate, focus, and present your idea in a way that's new, refreshing, and unique. In short-you'll need a strategy.

Generating a list

Listing is a starting point. Jot down any words, phrases, partial paragraphs-whatever comes to mind about your idea. Listing provides a visual forum that showcases how much information you know about a certain topic and will help highlight what areas need additional research.

Listing will always be your springboard at any stage in the paper. If you find yourself stuck or experiencing writer's block, listing can recharge your ideas and help you discover new approaches that will succeed in unblocking you.

Listing is a process where ideas evolve without the pressure of grammar, citations, tone, style, etc. It's a blueprint to help structure your writing. Listing is also often an essential first step to developing an outline.


Freewriting and listing are similar approaches to developing an idea, but freewriting takes an idea one step beyond listing. In this stage you must elaborate on your ideas, expand in whatever direction your mind takes you. Again, ignore grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Just write!

For a successful freewrite, follow these 4 easy steps.

  • Set a time limit (usually 10 to 15 minutes per freewriting session)
  • Scan your list one last time before beginning.
  • Start freewriting and don't stop. The idea is for your hand to move constantly, whether you're on topic or not. Write whatever comes to mind.
  • After finishing, read your freewrite aloud and look for epiphanies, any moments where you discover something new about your topic, not covered in your list.

Here's an example of a freewrite on Fast Food:

Fast food. Hmm. What can I say? McDonalds is the best since they have a dollar menu but I don't mind paying a little more for Burger King since the food tastes better. Which burger is flamed-broiled I forget. McD's and BK are the two leaders. Wendy's, Arby's, Taco Bell-Why are they less popular. Think. Think. A taco and a burger are different, of course. But Wendy's has burgers. What makes them different. Dollar menu. Everyone has a dollar menu. Kid's meals? McDonalds and BK really push their kid's meals and advertise to children. Collect this toy and that toy. That could be a reason for childhood obesity. I don't think Wendy's or Taco Bell even have Kid's meals.

As you can see from the above freewrite, the topic of 'fast food' evolves into a specific idea about the fast food industry's role in childhood obesity.

Rough Draft or Discovery Draft

This draft is similar but one step beyond freewriting. Again, ignore grammar, punctuation, and syntax. The main goal at this stage is to take your epiphany (such as the 'childhood obesity' example that derived from the broad topic 'fast food') and write as much specific information as possible.

Unlike a freewrite, now you're writing with a certain agenda in mind. The goal is stay on topic and generate a rough sketch with some complete sentences. This draft should be more coherent and focused than a typical freewrite.

Questions to keep in mind:

  • Is there an argument to approach when writing about this topic?
  • Are there subcategories in this topic?
  • Can I put these subcategories into clusters or groups?
  • How can I organize this information?
  • How can I work out any confusion about this topic?

Like freewriting, the goal of a discovery draft is to find additional epiphanies within the subcategories, therefore giving your idea or topic some organization.

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Formal Strategies

Six Essential Questions of Journalism

Formal strategies give students a systematic approach to generate ideas. It's important for all students to explore their own creative system since each student is a different and unique writer. But how do you find a system that works? Here are some common approaches that have worked over the years.

The six key questions of journalism are considered the easiest for students to find their individual methodologies of writing a paper: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Typically "Why" and "How" are the most difficult questions to answer.

"How" and "Why" are the main questions whose answers, often difficult to pinpoint at times, fuel the quest for organizing any confusion or arguments you have about your topic. If you find yourself struggling, you're on the right track since the best writing comes from figuring out an effective way to write about things we don't understand.


Tagmemics is another approach that requires you to examine a single object or subject from three separate viewpoints. The goal is that one or all of these viewpoints will help you create and develop an idea or topic. In order to execute this system, you'll need to visualize your topic by considering these three questions:

  • Can you see the subject as a thing in itself?
  • How does the subject change over time?
  • How does the subject function within its context?

For example, if you want to write a paper about folk music's role from the late 60s to present, the first step of tagmemics would be to discuss folk music as a thing in itself. What are the characteristics of folk music? Is it loud or soft? What instruments are essential? Are there any universal themes among folk lyrics? Are lyrics always necessary?

Next, you'll want to discuss how folk music has changed over time, from its inception to the present day. How did this genre of music function over time? Did time itself have an influence in which direction folk music took? How does history view folk music over the years? You might consider if folk music was the voice for a particular generation?

Finally, examine folk music as an art form in context. What folk artists responded to certain movements, political or social, in specific time periods? What effect did this music have on pop-culture in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and present? Or compare and contrast the impact of folk music with rock and roll or other genres in a particular time period?

The goal of tagmemics is simple: to encourage questions that have focused answers, even solutions, all of which will help you write insightful, intriguing, and intellectual essays.

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Maintaining Focus and Control Over Your Ideas

Now that you have your lists and freewrites, perhaps even a rough draft, you still might be experiencing some writer's block. Ask yourself: Do I have too many ideas? What do I do with all of these ideas? Which one of my ideas would make the best academic paper if I had to pick one and why?

When you explain your topic's main point in only a few sentences and form a quick summation of what's essential, you'll discover which ideas relate to one another and which ones stand off on their own. The goal is to find the overall "point." When the overall "point" is discovered, all of your research and information about your idea or topic will transform into a powerful, organized essay that is clear and concise.

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Dealing with Setbacks

Broadening Your Topic

After focusing and controlling your ideas, you may find that your topic or approach to any given topic is too narrow, too isolated or particular. Do you have a topic that would run out of steam after only five minutes of conversation? The main question is: How do I broaden my topic without making it too broad?

The best way to broaden your topic is to focus on theme. Regardless of what you're writing about (art, literature, music, sociological, political, religious, etc.), you might need to consider the central themes of your material.

For example, if you were writing about how teens use drugs and alcohol as a result of peer pressure or as a means to 'fit in' with a certain crowd, can you make any other connections about teens' struggle for acceptance? What are the media telling kids about fitting in? Are there scare tactics involved? How do teens, other than in social situations, struggle to find their place in the world?

The idea is to widen your outlook and approach. Find the central theme that drives your idea and begin stretching out the scope to give your paper a well-rounded body. Explain how these factors (media, scare tactics, parenting, etc) all influence teens' struggle to fit in. Don't limit yourself strictly to social situations.

Narrowing Your Topic

In your attempts to broaden your topic, the end result might take you too far. Now your topic is too big. So what can you do now?

Staying with the example on teens 'fitting in,' consider the idea of inserting a case study, a close examination of one particular 'teen' that will give your essay a chance to slow down and spend some time focusing on 'one' subject within a given theme.

For example, if you're talking about a group of teens that are all experiencing some form of peer pressure that leads to drugs and alcohol, is there one teen, in particular, whose story or experience stands out above the rest or seems representative? If so, spend some time developing this teen's story, give a close examination of his/her particular experience, how it relates to your topic and theme holistically.

Test this theory by trying out new approaches. If you're writing a paper about teen alcohol and drug use, perhaps a close examination of gender (a male subject and a female subject) will again, give your essay a thorough and well-rounded outcome rather than simply talking about teens in general.

Case studies are a way to engage your reader with personal accounts of something specific that pertains to your topic. When you discuss how these case studies relate to your topic as a whole, your essay will demonstrate a nice balance-your topic examined from a far, as well as up close.

Remember: specific examples within a broad topic will give you the narrow focus your essay needs.

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--Written by Tom Kunz