I recently signed up for Reddit. During setup, I clicked on categories and topics of interest so the app could deliver relevant updates.
On the spot I had to decide my preferences: do I want ongoing content about this topic or that? Do I want them to send information about technology, politics, economics? Food, fitness, travel, entertainment?
Select Your Top Themes and Topics
I’ve had to do this several times over the years, with apps like Flipboard and most news outlets. I created my own categories for Twitter lists and Feedly subscriptions that groups the content by general topic.
The act of choosing—of being forced to choose—helps me make decisions. I must discern what I care to know more about and what’s less interesting to me.
Narrow Your Top Themes and Topics
Once the articles start flowing into one of these apps, filling my feed with content related to the areas I clicked on, I’ll often realize, “Oh, wait. Wait. I guess I don’t want to know that much about weight training or Broadway shows.” So I update my preferences, usually eliminating a category.
Before long, I not only realize I’m bored by topics I thought I’d like, I also begin to see topics I’m deeply interested in. When I stop everything to read an article and share it on social media, for example, or talk about it a lot at the dinner table, that’s a clue. I pay attention to my intensifying interest, as it’s a strong indication it might be one of my top themes or topics.
We can figure out our interests in other ways, however.
- What do you already know a lot about? Obviously, it’s been a topic of interest already.
- What books do you check out at the library? That indicates you want to dig deeper and know more.
- What outings do you invest time or money in? Do you often visit an art museum, movie theater, car show, live concert, lecture, conference, or state park? Our calendars and credit cards can point us toward our top interests.
- Do you steer conversations toward a particular topic? Do you seek others who join you in an animated, energizing discussion? Take note. That’s probably a top theme or topic for you.
- Where does your curiosity consistently carry you? You don’t have to be an expert to start digging into a topic that captivates you. Explore it.
When you begin to identify these top areas of interest, pick up on clues to narrow your focus. This will help you discover the kind of writing you can pursue.
Confirm Your Top Themes and Topics by Writing
To confirm which of these top themes and topics you want to write about—and the ones you want to be known for—start writing about them.
- read an article that riles you up? Write a response and submit it as an op-ed piece.
- read an article that skims the surface of what you know to be true? Write a deeper and better-researched piece and submit it to a relevant publication or work it into a book.
- read a short story that touches on themes you care about? Write something that grapples with the same theme using a different plot or cover the same theme in a different genre. Maybe you read a short story but you can explore it in a poem.
- read a poem that stirs you with its subject matter or theme? Weave your own images or story into a form poem different from what you read, so you explore the same topic in a new way. Or you could switch genres and write an essay in response to the poem.
Whether you write nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, write to discover topics that captivate you, energize you, and hold your attention.
Your Personal Themes and Topics
The “subscription model” I talked about at the beginning where you identify top themes and topics will reveal a lot. But it leaves out something critical: personal history.
What do you obsess about from your past? What episode or memory do you return to in your writing to explore all over again? Discover that and you’ll further refine your top themes and topics, and kind of fold these obsessions into your top themes and topics.
In his book Telling Stories, Lee Martin admits he worries about returning to his family history too often. He says, “I worry that readers will eventually tire of my writing about the accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the rage he brought into our home.”1
Write About Your Obsessions
Then he recalls a famous author—he says maybe it was Fitzgerald or maybe Flaubert, but he isn’t sure and I couldn’t confirm it. Martin says this author claims that a writer would be lucky “to figure out early on what his obsessions were and to spend a lifetime writing about them.”2
Natalie Goldberg says something similar in Writing Down the Bones: “Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released…We are run by our compulsions. Maybe it’s just me. But it seems that obsessions have power. Harness that power.”3
In fact, she recommends you make a list of your obsessions.
I think that’s a great idea. Do that.
Our personal passions and obsessions extend beyond those articles we’ve subscribed to about internet marketing or a book release on politics. We can be obsessed with politics or marketing, yes, but our personal passions and obsessions drill down deep.
We write to discover more about where we stand on an issue and how we spread our perspective on a topic. But we also write to discover our obsessions and to discover more about our obsessions.
Lee Martin continues:
My obsession, it seems, is never ending, as, of course, true obsessions always are, but the position from which I see is always moving, using different characters or situations as my viewfinder. The end result for me is a fuller picture of my own experience. I learn something new with each essay that I write. If the material is richly complicated, as this story of my family is, I’m not sure one will ever run out of new ways to explore it as long as the writer is open to the slightly off-center perspective that other characters or stylistic choices can provide. 4
The best way to discover and affirm and understand our top themes and topics and obsessions is to write about them.
Store Information about Your Topics
Years ago, I heard about author Elizabeth George’s Five Fat Files. Her idea is to pick five areas you’d like to grow in—even develop into an expert in—and focus your resources on those five areas.5
They could be five ideas, topics, or themes, and they are five areas you can live with for a long, long time because you’re investing in them in a way that invests in you yourself as a writer, and as a person, over time.
This file concept fits well as a logistical way of storing information related to these top topics and themes.
Easy Access, Easy Organization
Elizabeth George’s Five Fat Files were fat because she stored literal pieces of paper—articles and printouts with relevant information—in physical file folders that got thicker and thicker the more she learned.
Author Sophfronia Scott uses a visual, old-school system for her big fat writing journal: a blue binder. She likes that you can move things around in it. She stores topics, works-in-progress, observations, and excerpts in the binder and carries it with her everywhere.6
Ryan Holiday uses a 4×6 card system, filing quotations, excerpts, and observations, under bigger topics and themes of his own in a big box.7
You could create physical files, but don’t be afraid to use digital files. The people I just mention would probably advise you to use physical means to store information related to your top themes and topics. They feel it’s important to be able to pull out the cards, open the notebook, or pluck material from the file folders for inspiration.
Frankly, for my convenience, I’ve had to go digital. For years I used Evernote but recently I’ve been transitioning to Drive.
Whatever system you choose, make it easy to access, easy to organize, and easy to revisit like these other authors are doing. They’ve created versatile, flexible systems designed for them to access daily. Notes and content await them to inspire and inform their writing projects.
Also, be sure to keep track of all the citation information connected to anything you record. That way you can go back and figure out your original sources and correctly cite them. This is especially important if you’re writing a nonfiction book because you need to back up all those sources and add them to your endnotes. Set up a simple system that you can tweak as you go.
Review and Write
But most importantly, start writing about these top themes and topics. Write about them in a journal, and write about them for publication. Write essays and articles, short stories and poems. Write in whatever genres you enjoy most.
Write not only to discover your top themes and topics but also to narrow and confirm them.
Your Top Themes & Topics Build Your Brand and Platform
The more you write, the more knowledge gaps you’ll reveal; you’ll see how to increase the depth of your understanding and the content you need to add to your Five Fat Files.
You’ll lock in what you’re learning by forcing yourself to express it in writing.
You’ll share with readers life themes and values that matter most to you—and with any luck, you’ll hear from them and learn from their responses.
And as you write about your top themes and topics, readers will start to connect you to those ideas and interests.
Who knows? In time, you may be the one interviewed on a podcast or invited to speak on a panel on a particular top theme and topic.
You’ll be building an identity, a brand, and a platform so naturally, you won’t even notice. You’ll be having too much fun and finding too much value in writing about the things that matter most to you.
- Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself
- Ep 181: Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears
- Ep 182: Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing
- Ryan Holiday’s Note Card System
- Sophfronia Scott’s Big Fat Writing Journal
- Overview of the Elizabeth George’s Five Fat Files from Pam Weaver
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
- Martin, Lee. Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2017. Print. (137)
- Goldberg, Natalie. Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala, 2006. Print. (42, 43)
- Martin, 138
- Pamelaweaver.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2019. <http://www.pamelaweaver.com/5-fat-files-what-would-you-like-to-be-known-for/>.
- Scott, Sophfronia. “My Big Fat Writing Journal.” Sophfronia Scott. N.p., Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2019. <https://sophfronia.com/my-big-fat-writing-journal/>.
- Holiday, Ryan. “The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read.” RyanHoliday.net – Meditations on Strategy and Life. N.p., Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2019. <https://ryanholiday.net/the-notecard-system-the-key-for-remembering-organizing-and-using-everything-you-read/>.