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Glenn Stovall
Glenn Stovall

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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.

This article originally appeared here: Article Topic Brainstorming, with a little extra added content just for 🙂 Cover image by Rawpixel on Unsplash.

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.

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

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.

Still don’t want to blog, but want to improve your professional writing? Check out the valuable writing package for templates & resources, available for free.

Quick Edit: I created a spreadsheet you can download to help with this exercise: Article Brainstorm Worksheet

Want some feedback on some article ideas, or need further help getting unstuck? Ask in the comments, I'd be more than happy to help!

Top comments (16)

wangonya profile image
Kelvin Wangonya

Very helpful article Glenn. Thanks!

hamstu profile image
Hamish Macpherson

Great article Glenn! Thanks for the inspiration.

milkstarz profile image

This is great. I struggle with coming up with ideas for my posts, especially when I realize that something has been written already that is similar to my thought.

How do you combat that?

gsto profile image
Glenn Stovall

Short answer: write it anyway.

Longer answer:

Even if someone else has written something, you can still write it in your voice, from your perspective. Unless you are blatantly plagiarizing, you'll come up with your own spin on an idea. You can also try a different spin on it. Maybe a different format, or a more specific direction. For example, earlier I was looking up how to do some things with forms in React, and I saw at least four different coding styles, patterns, and libraries used.

Something else to consider is that once you write something, even if someone else wrote it, it's part of your body of work now. Well-written and thought articles can be just as valuable as a good portfolio piece.

hamstu profile image
Hamish Macpherson

Great advice! Another small thing I would add is that even if someone has written about your topic before, things change a lot in tech. I know when I'm looking for a resource on something I definitely favor newer resources/articles over something more dated. (Pretty sure Google does, too. Generally speaking.)

This may not hold up as well for posts that are less technical, but in those cases Glenn pointed out a myriad of reasons to do it anyway. Go forth and write!

Thread Thread
gsto profile image
Glenn Stovall

This is true. Writing about the latest technologies can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's novel and useful. On the other hand, that means what you write also runs the risk of becoming out-of-date. Which isn't the end of the world. Plenty of people work on out-of-date stacks and legacy software, and still need help with older technologies.

donita profile image

This is a great read! Thank your the ideas!

blantsimonetti profile image
Blant Simonetti

Really helpful article

ice_lenor profile image

This is inspirational! I was struggling lately with what exactly to write and lacking motivation, but I hope your post will motivate me.
Thank you, Glenn!

bzdata profile image

This is so helpful for anyone with writers block!

rnrnshn profile image

Awesome tips. Thanks 😍

helenanders26 profile image
Helen Anderson

Super helpful! Thanks for posting.

vishnuharidas profile image
Vishnu Haridas

My take: Write it even if it's only a few lines long.

gsto profile image
Glenn Stovall

Yes! I love this take on that approach:

yeisonpx profile image
Yeison Lapaix

Excellent article, I have this problem always to start to write any post. But I will practice this tips to my next post in my blog.

Thank you, Glen!!!

davidjcreative profile image
David Johnson

AH This is great! Thank you for sharing these. I feel like I've been looking for this list for years!