You’re inspired. An idea seizes you and before the energy fizzles, you whip out a laptop, open a new document, and slam out words. Get it down fast—start writing and discover along the way what you want to say.
I support this approach! Capture the core idea while your creativity sizzles—before your vision fades!
At some point, however, you need to take a minute to be sure you know four key elements of this project or else your final product may miss the mark.
For everything we write, we really do need to know:
Imagine if today’s article had been titled “Follow These 3 Rules to Organize and Optimize Your RV Kitchen.” You’d wonder if you clicked on the wrong link or cued up the wrong podcast. I do like RV travel and could probably write about it, but because this website provides writing input to readers, an RV article might suit the medium of a podcast that focused on RV owners, but it would not fit the topic, audience, or purpose of a writing coach podcast or website.
Understand these fundamental elements of your project, and you’ll save time in the editing stage and ultimately impress publishers and serve readers. You’ll build an audience that can tell you are knowledgeable and you understand them.
Build This Step into Your Writing Process
Experienced writers who publish regularly often work through this instinctively because they’ve written for years about a particular subject matter for an outlet that follows a specific format. These professionals may be able to sit down and tap out an impressive draft that follows style and formatting guidelines, and falls close to the ideal word count.
But if you’re…
- new to writing
- returning to it after a long break
- craving a refresher on the basics
- concerned your work isn’t connecting with readers
- stepping out to write new subject matter, reach a new audience, or publish in a new media style or outlet
…I recommend you build this step into your writing process more intentionally.
Consciously, deliberately pause in the early stages of development to think through—even write out—brief descriptions of your project’s topic, audience, purpose, and medium.
Know what you’re setting out to accomplish and why. Determine what you’re writing about and who it’s for. Consider where it’ll be published and distributed, because that affects its depth and design, tone and topic, length and layout.
Lock this in before you brainstorm, research, outline, or free write and you’ll find the writing, revising, and editing process more efficient and the finished project’s impact more effective.
Let’s start with that initial inspiration. That creative spark. That idea.
THE TOPIC QUESTION: What’s this project about?
Sometimes you’re assigned a topic; other times the idea blooms from within. Either way, you’ll need to confirm the high-level topic and then articulate how this project will narrow and focus on a particular aspect of it.
For example, your high-level topic may be vegetable gardening. Are you writing an article for a local garden shop’s newsletter about growing potatoes or how to plant a Three Sisters garden? That’s how you would narrow the high-level topic to be more focused.
If you function as your own publisher, your “brand” may cover three or four categories that lead to obvious topic choices that always fit the audience, purpose, and medium.
The food blogger writes about the high-level topic of food, but narrows it to a few categories like main dishes, side dishes, slow-cooker instructions. Then, she publishes specific articles and recipes under each of those. So any given project—in this case, it’s probably a blog post—will have a specific topic. And that’s what her project is about: it’s an eggplant recipe or instructions for cooking steel cut oats.
You may find it helpful to express the big idea of this project in one-sentence, as you would a thesis. Or maybe writing the headline will help you answer the topic question and explain what your project’s about. Keep your guiding statement at the top of your work-in-progress to help you stay focused.
When Your Topic is Predetermined
In some cases your topic is predetermined. If so:
What’s the topic of this project you’ve been assigned?
You may have been provided a topic by a publication or professor, so you start with the assignment and decide how to narrow it and what angle to take.
Maybe you’re required to write in your professional life—week after week you produce the same kind of content on the same five topics related to your company’s products and services. You find new ways to talk about employee benefits or industry changes. Each time you need to ask what this particular project is about.
Perhaps your personal writing tends toward the same two or three themes, every time; yet, each project somehow differs in the specifics, so what’s this one about?
Even when your main topic is predetermined, run it through this process so it lands on its own narrow, specific topic. Be sure to address the other three elements, then you’ll be on your way to knocking out a solid, workable draft.
When Curiosity Guides You, Confirm the Topic
What’s the topic of the project you’ve invented?
Sometimes writers are free to write about a range of topics, generating ideas on their own—topics they may publish themselves or pitch elsewhere. These writers can follow anything that catches their imagination. When inspiration hits, they run with it.
Essay-writing in particular begins with a sense of inquiry, and your initial idea shifts as your writing and research nudges you in a new direction. If this is how you write, follow the leads, the clues. Let curiosity guide you.
Whether you write to discover what the project is about or map it out in advance with an outline, you eventually need to confirm the topic and ask: What’s the topic of this project I’m exploring?
Through discovery-writing or by planning it out, you find the clarity you crave and lock in your project’s big idea: its topic.
Make sure it aligns with your audience, purpose, and medium, so you can choose the ideal structure, tone, and phrasing for the best possible outcome.
Audience is the “who” of your project.
THE AUDIENCE QUESTION: Who’s this project for?
Who are you trying to reach? Who’s your ideal reader?
Your audience could be history professors or history buffs. You might start with the same topic—even use the same examples to support various claims—but the tone and word choices you’d make for the former may differ slightly from those you’d make for the latter.
To serve your audience, understand their needs, questions, and concerns—especially related to your topic. What topic can you tackle that they want to know about? Will the medium you choose reach them? For example, have you researched the online magazines they read, the social media platforms they prefer? Will your audience find this as an academic paper and or an e-book?
Determine who your project is for and then know your audience so you can connect with them through every creative choice you make.
To determine the purpose of your project, look at it from two angles: Think through the “why” from the author perspective and from the reader’s perspective.
Start by examining your personal purpose—what’s driving you to create this particular project?
THE PERSONAL PURPOSE QUESTION: Why am I writing this project?
When you identify your purpose for pursuing this project, you’ll stay the course and write to suit your audience. You’ll meet your goal because you’ll understand your goal. If you aren’t sure why you’re writing this, it’s easy to give up.
Many motives may drive your purpose:
- You want to meet the requirements and deadline of an assignment.
- You want to gain respect and position yourself as a subject-matter expert.
- You want to land a paid writing gig.
- You want to reach new readers.
- You’re shifting to a new medium.
- You’re testing interest in a new topic to see if you could rebrand.
- You dove into new ideas to satisfy curiosity and decided to share your discoveries with others.
Be honest about what’s driving this project. Your purpose compels you to write.
While you have your personal reasons for taking on a project, remember that the project itself has a purpose, as well.
THE PROJECT’S PURPOSE QUESTION: What’s this project supposed to achieve?
Or, similarly, how does this project serve its intended audience?
If you aren’t sure what the project’s purpose is, everything can feel off.
But you can determine the project’s purpose and consider what it should achieve. You could set out to write a project that will:
Whatever you land on, write with that as your goal—that’s the outcome you want for this project; the impact you want it to make on its reader.
A Project’s Purpose Fulfilled by Your Brand
Readers may already turn to you for a type of writing—you may be known to solve problems or make people laugh. That may make it easy for you to determine the purpose of your next Instagram caption or article.
The project succeeds when it respects the reader’s choices and meets the reader’s needs. Why would he bother reading this particular blog post or white paper when he has so many other things he could do with his time?
Does your reader want to laugh and your humor consistently delivers a chuckle?
Does your reader want to understand a situation and you can explain it well?
Does your reader want to solve a problem and you have the answers?
Does your reader want to improve the world or herself, and you can inspire and lead the way with aspirational content?
Your readers will pay attention to your projects in search of what they want or need.
Write a project that fulfills your purpose, to stay the course and finish strong; write a project that fulfills its purpose, to reach readers and make a connection that lasts.
THE MEDIUM QUESTION: How will this project be shared with the world?
Will it be a blog post? Social media update? Will you deliver it as spoken word poetry? Is it an essay you’ll submit to a journal, a paper you’ll turn in for class, or a report you’ll send to your boss? Will it be published in an academic journal, shared as a pdf in the cloud, or will you print out copies to distribute at a meeting?
All of these different media options and outlets are available to us for sending out our work, and that influences our choices: from character and word count limits to structure and organizational choices. The medium will drive paragraph length and subheading styles; it may suggest you use bold text and bullet points.
These decisions can be made when you know where and how this piece is going out into the world. Know this before you write, to save time and frustration in the drafting stage and later in the revision and editing stages.
Be sure you know how this is going to be published—how readers are going to receive it or access it—so you make the best choices from the start.
Every project, big or small, has a topic, audience, and purpose. Every project, big or small, will find its way into the world through some medium, whether as a trade nonfiction book or a social media update.
Answer these fundamental questions about every project—even if you breeze through them—to make appropriate decisions about every other aspect of the piece.
You’ll know yourself and your project so well, you’ll simplify and smooth out the writing process.
From content, tone, style, and length, to structure, organization, formatting, and word choice, you’ll ensure this project sings—and that sizzling idea that captivated you will also captivate your readers.