This guide illustrates many ways to discover paper topics when you’re feeling stuck or indecisive. It assumes that you have reviewed thoroughly your professor’s assignment information, which often delineates what you should write and how you should approach it. But if that review turns up nothing for you, then one or more of the activities below might help you power through your writer’s block.
Feeling stuck, lost, blocked—this is a common experience for anyone with a writing task to do. In the pursuit of writing something, we often become our own worst enemy by interposing between our mind and the page a thousand doubts, criticisms, and second-guesses. This is our “inner censor.” Often helpful, the inner censor provides the judgments we need to write well. At other points, though, the censor’s judgments paralyze us and make us needlessly miserable.
These strategies may help you overcome the inner censor’s too-loud voice. Use them in any combination. Vary them in any way you think will help you. And as always, talking through your ideas with one of our Peer Writing Consultants in the Writing Center can also help you find a topic that works for your assignment.
Meaning is a scrap among other scraps, though stickier.
--Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, 23 Dec 2019, p. 43
Your writing assignment is likely tied to whatever it is you’re reading, discussing, and exploring in class. All those course activities create scraps of ideas, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and arguments that are all part of the learning you’re doing. By reviewing course content, you might find scraps that are “sticky,” in Peter Schjeldahl’s words.
Take out all the materials that may relate to the writing assignment: notes, textbooks, video recordings. In your mind, recall moments in class that arrested your attention. Review it all, paying attention to anything that fascinated you for a second, or confused you, or angered you. These are the things—the scraps--that stuck with you. Where there is sticking there may be interest, and where there is interest, there may be a good idea for a piece of writing. It’s that simple.
If you do not know your topic, one of the most natural things to do is to make a list of possibilities. Indeed, your instructor may even assign you to write down a list of topics early in the process for a writing project. There’s power in a written list; it gets the ideas out of your head where things are dark and murky and it shines a little light on them.
When you make the list, give yourself at least five minutes and commit to listing every idea that occurs to you. It is important that you list every idea, no matter what—that’s the only way around the inner censor trying to shoot down everything in sight. Just put the ideas get on paper, and then set the list aside for as long as you can—at least an hour, but 24 hours is ideal.
Returning to the list, review each item with a view to the assignment you’re working on. Now is the time to judge each idea according to its merits—does it fit the assignment? Is the idea intriguing to you? Would it be interesting to other readers? Be mindful, too, of other ideas that have occurred to you while you review the list or that came into your mind after you set the list aside. Write those out as well, giving each one the same scrutiny.
The Bug List
Most writing happens because there’s a problem. We need to know something we don’t know. We need to figure out how to solve a problem. All this is terrible chitchat that doesn’t help. The bug list is a special brainstorming strategy that begins with a simple question: what bugs you about whatever it is the assignment asks you to write about? In a Shakespeare class, a student assigned to write a paper about Much Ado about Nothing came up with the following:
It bugs me that:
- Claudio is such a jerk—why does he get everything he wants at the end?
- Beatrice is too smart for everyone else in the play
- Leonato believes the men slandering his daughter more than her—why is that, and why does he change his mind and start believing her after all?
- I cannot understand a thing that Dogberry says—why is he supposed to be so funny?
- The ending is so forced and unnatural
- Hero has to “die” before she can come back to life again
- Hero wants to marry Claudio after he tries to ruin her life
Most of the items on this student’s bug list have potential because they point to significant critical issues in that play. Most academic writing responds to problems and tries to solve them, so a bug list can be a shortcut to finding the problems that your readers might care about.
Have you noticed how much time you spend not writing when you are “writing”? Most of us spend less time tapping the keys or moving the pen across the page than pausing, thinking, and thinking again. Not only do we pause in our efforts to try to get the right word, or to fix the punctuation error, our minds impose heavy censorship on the very thoughts we are trying to express.
Freewriting is a technique that gets you quiet the loud voice of your inner censor. It’s simple: set a timer for no more than ten minutes, and just write whatever comes into your head. If nothing comes to mind, simply write “I don’t know what to say” over and over until something occurs to you. And it will. Just write without caring what the ideas are, if they are any good, if they are acceptable, or if the grammar and spelling is correct. It may look something like this, with all the grammar mistakes and typos included:
I really don’t want to be writing this but I said I would write this. Just 10 minutes a day for awhile, right? That’s not much. I flip through web pages and twitter feed for more than ten minutes at a time and my phone, smarter than me, tells me so. It puts together all that time on social media, browsing, and oh I don’t’ know, other stuff. I actually even put a call out or take one I suppose it’s tinme to consider whether those things should really be called phones anymore maybe that’s what happening? Aren’t some calling them mobile devices? Is that a thing? Your mobile device? What the hell is that really? It’s such an abstract term I carry my wallet around it’s mobile but is it a device? I suppose it is not a complicated enough thing to be a device but this is getting boring but it turns out I really might have something to say about what these things are that suck up my time and make me think I cannot freewrite for 10 minutes a day because I’m so busy doing whaaaaaaat? and I work too, really, I do.. .
In this selection from the full 10-minute freewrite, the student happens across some potentially meaningful content about the uses and abuses of cell phones. It’s at least worth pausing to reflect more deeply on the age-old theme that labor-saving devices are more of an encumbrance than a blessing.
As you might suspect, freewriting does indeed produce a lot of junk. That’s okay. Done frequently, freewriting will connect the physical act of writing more firmly to what’s going on in your mind, and your mind will surprise you with good ideas, amazing insights, and creative turns of phrase. Save the good bits. Drop the rest. While it seems inefficient to toss out more than you save, remember that you wrote for ten solid minutes rather than just staring at a blinking cursor for that long, waiting for the “right” thought to come.
Let’s say you have an idea what you want to write about for an assignment, but are struggling to create an outline or craft an introduction or, for that matter, do much of anything else. Freewriting can help you break through these blocks simply by committing yourself to write nonstop for a certain amount of time. The pioneer of freewriting, Peter Elbow, recommends taking 45 minutes to just write about whatever comes to mind on your topic, just as if you are talking it over with someone else.
Then, taking 15 minutes to read it over, looking for what it all amounts to. Where is the thinking leading you? What’s the point you seem drawn to? What’s the angle? Write in one sentence what it is you now want to assert.
Take that one sentence, put it at the top of a page, and riff on that one sentence for another 45 minutes, going as quickly as you can without stopping for corrections or editing of any kind. If the writing moves away from that first idea, or if it seems that you have a better idea that disagrees with that first one, follow it wherever it goes. Sometimes the first thought really is the best thought, but more often it’s a false lead but a necessary step to getting to your best idea.
After this second bit of focused freewriting, spend 15 minutes again taking stock of what you have written. Follow this reflection period with another main thought and another 45-minute focused freewrite. By this point, you will know if you have an idea that you can really commit to and a few passages that may express your best points or contain the evidence you need to support them.
Again, this process may seem inefficient, but it’s possible that at the end of three hours you have spontaneously generated a great deal of good material that will not take much time to shape, editing, and proofread. If this process works for you, you will find it preferable to spending hours and hours battling each sentence as you try to develop the first idea that came into your head on the assignment.
If you have tried and re-tried these any of these methods to no avail, it’s time for a talk. Head to your professor’s office hours or set up an appointment at our Writing Center. Share your struggles with them; show them the brainstorming you have done. Talking your assignment through with someone else will spark surprising insights and help you recognize the promise in your ideas.
 Peter Elbow, Writing without Teachers (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1973), 20-22.