How do you decide what to write?

Whether you’re writing a blog post or a book, you’ve likely asked yourself what you should write. It may feel like you could write about anything – after all, thanks to the internet, you can research anything you want. But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

If you’re writing for your business, instead of thinking about every topic you could write about, you need to identify what your current and future clients need to read from you.

Step 1: Feelings

I’m sure you’ve heard that people don’t buy features, they buy feelings. They choose their reading material the same way. So before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), you need to ask yourself how you want your readers to feel after they read your post or book.

When I work with clients on this, I ask them to come up with three to five words that describe how they want people to feel after any interaction with their business. These are also called your brand values or brand words.

Take some time over this step to come up with the right list of words for you. These shouldn’t change in their core message. For example, my main words are supported, empowered, fearless, determined, and nurtured. So whatever feeling I seek to inspire through a particular piece of writing is going to be either one of these or something closely related.

Once you have a list you’re happy with, write it down and post it in your writing space.

When you write something new for your business, take some time to decide which of those words (or related feelings) you’re going to concentrate on.

Step 2: Where does it fit in your business?

Once you know how you want your reader to feel after they read your new piece, you need to think about how what you’re writing fits into your business overall. You can do this by asking yourself questions like these:

  • Is what you’re writing a product in and of itself, or is it meant to pique your readers’ interest in one of your products or services?
  • Are you writing something to help your clients solve a particular problem?
  • Are you trying to teach something?
  • Are you trying to establish your expertise?
  • Are you trying to help your client get to know you and how you can help them?

Step 3: Bring the feeling and purpose together

Write the feeling you want to inspire and the purpose of your piece on a sheet of paper and brainstorm. You’ll find it easier to brainstorm on unlined paper, and you’ll be more creative if you write with brightly coloured pens or pencils.

When you brainstorm, set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and try to write continuously. Just write whatever comes to mind – you may be surprised by what comes out. Once time is up, reread what you’ve written. Underline or circle the topics you’re most excited about. Then, write your favourite at the top of a new piece of paper (keep the others for later).

Step 4: Write your statement of argument

In this step, you need to state the point of what you’re writing in one sentence. This sentence must be arguable.

For example, if you were writing an article about soup, this would not work as your statement of argument: Chicken noodle is a kind of soup.

Why wouldn’t it work? Because it’s a simple statement of fact. There’s nothing for you to explore or prove.

This would work: You should eat chicken noodle soup when you have a cold because it has been shown to have healing properties.

Unlike the statement of fact, this one gives you something to work with. You can present and evaluate the studies that have shown ingredients in chicken noodle soup to have healing properties. Also, you can address the effect of eating something that’s soothing and familiar when you’re feeling run down with a cold.

Step 5: Ask questions

Once you have your statement of argument, it’s time to write your outline. I always suggest doing this by asking questions of your statement of argument.

This method is useful because it easy to implement, and it will keep you focused on your main topic.

If you’re writing a blog post, you probably only need 3 or 4 questions. If you’re writing a book, you’ll need to start with 10 or so.

To begin with, just list the questions. So, returning to our statement about soup you could ask these questions:

  1. Are these healing properties peculiar to chicken noodle soup, or would other soups work just as well?
  2. What healing properties has it been shown to have?
  3. Why is chicken noodle soup good when you have a cold?

You’re going to answer these questions to produce your text. I prefer using questions for the outline to listing topics because humans better at answering questions than writing on topics.

After you list your questions, you need to put them in a logical order. The order for the questions I’ve listed isn’t logical. If I were to write this, I’d need to answer question 2 before question 1. Question 3, however, could come at the beginning or the end of the post. When this happens, you’ll just have to write the post and decide which placement is best.

What’s next?

All that’s left now is to write your text (by answering the questions you listed in step 5), and then polishing and publishing it.

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How to Quickly and Easily Outline Your Writing

In my previous post, I discussed how to craft a thesis statement. If you have yours to hand, get it out—you’ll need it for your outline. If you haven’t written one yet, reread the previous post and write one.

Once you have a thesis, you’re ready to outline. Before I continue, I should confess that I’ve never been the kind of writer who uses detailed outlines. At school when the outline was part of the assessment, I usually wrote my paper first and then reverse engineered the outline.

Since training as a writing teacher, I’ve come to appreciate the utility of a rough outline, but still don’t create highly detailed outlines. If you’re interested in creating a more detailed outline than what I’ll walk you through in this post, please do. Many people find them useful, if you’re one of them, enjoy. In the conclusion, I explain how to use this method to create a more detailed outline.

Pre-Outline Freewriting

In my post on freewriting, I discussed how to use freewriting to get going in your writing. It’s just as useful for your outline. So, set a timer for 10 minutes and write (without stopping) about your thesis statement. Don’t judge what you write, just write whatever comes to mind when you think about your thesis. You’ll likely write some combination of phrases, rough sentences, and questions.

When the timer goes off, reread what you’ve written and underline or highlight anything that stands out as particularly useful. Keep these things in mind as you continue to the next step.

The Outline

Write your thesis at the top of the page. Below it, you’ll write questions you need to answer in order to prove your thesis.

Let’s return to the sample thesis from the previous post: People who have pet cats tend to have lower blood pressure than those who have dogs.

  1. How have scientists looked at the impact of spending time with animals on blood pressure in humans?
  2. What is the evidence that spending time with animals is beneficial in terms of lowering blood pressure?
  3. What evidence is there that dogs and cats have different impacts on blood pressure?
  4. Have the studies controlled for people who are allergic to cats? Who are allergic to dogs? Who are allergic to both cats and dogs?
  5.  How can living with a cat be better for one’s blood pressure than living with a dog, when it has been shown repeatedly that having a dog increases one’s physical activity?

The list of questions could go on, but you get the idea.

The next step is to take each question in turn and decide whether it has a place in your piece. For example, in response to question one, you could find an article (or several articles) that discuss scientific studies of the impact of spending time with animals on blood pressure. You’d likely find that some of these looked at patient records and asked the patients to fill in a questionnaire. Thus, they’d be based on doctor recorded blood pressure readings and patients’ self-reporting about the time they spend with animals.

You would likely conclude that question 1, or rather its answer, does have a place in your piece. It is vital to your thesis that you have evidence that animals affect blood pressure. If you’re writing a longer piece, you’d likely want to consider the inherent problems in studies that rely on self-reported information – to what extent can you rely on what the patients reported about themselves? Also, if the study uses medical records collected by several physicians, can you trust that the data are consistent? Is one blood pressure machine as accurate as another? Is one physician as accurate in recording patient data as the next?

After you think this through and the additional potential questions that you need to consider, it’s time to reflect on the place of this question in your larger piece. If you’re writing a blog post or an article, this might be the only point you need, but you’d then need to revise your thesis to reflect your new focus. If you’re writing a book, the exercise of thinking through question 1 as I’ve done here has shown that question one is substantial enough to warrant having its own chapter.

You would then repeat this exercise with the remaining questions. If you find a question that just doesn’t interest you, if it’s not vital to proving your thesis, cross it out. If it is vital to your thesis, consider either tweaking your thesis so it’s not, or keeping the question you’re not wild about.

Once you’ve finished working through your questions, write a one sentence answer to each question that you are keeping on a separate sheet of paper. Then think about what order they should go in; the strength of your argument, and therefore of your piece of writing, relies on the logic of your organisation. For example, if you’re writing a book, there should be a clear, obvious reason why chapter three must come after chapter two and before chapter four.

One way to test your order, is to write each statement on a separate strip of paper, mix them up (or type them out and then alphabetise them), and ask a friend to put them in order. If your friend comes up with an order that is different to yours, discuss how you each reached the order you did. Then, decide if you want to change your order. If you don’t change it, but feel your friend has some valid points, make sure you keep those in mind as you write – you’ll need to make it clear to your reader why you’re discussing things in the order you do.

Conclusion

If you like more detailed outlines, repeat this process with the answers to the questions you keep – those answers are the thesis statements for your individual chapters. Your answers to your chapter thesis statements will be topic sentences for your paragraphs or, for more complex issues, your section headings (the topic for a group of paragraphs). We’ll talk about paragraphing and topic sentences next month.

In the Facebook group, let us know how this outlining technique worked for you. If you have used a different technique, share that with us too!