After you write your first couple of articles, a problem most technical writers face is: "So, what do I write about next?"
It can be a frustrating question, so I wrote this article to help. In it, I will give you tips that will save you the headache the next time you need to pick a topic for an article.
Here's an overview of what this article will cover:
- Decide why you want to write
- Follow your interests
- Everything has already been written about
- Don't rehash the docs
This article is intended for technical writers who write about programming topics and are trying to figure out what to write about next.
The article doesn't include any advice about actually writing articles – just what to write about.
One of the best ways to generate ideas of any kind is brainstorming. The more ideas you can come up with, the great your chances are of finding a good one.
You can brainstorm in a bunch of different ways, including as a group, but here's the approach to it that works best for me:
- Get a pen and paper.
- Write down every topic idea that comes to your mind, even if you think it's a bad idea.
- Keep going until you can't think of anything else.
- If you've found an idea you're happy with, stop.
- If you haven't, look for some more input. You can ask people for suggestions, check out things other people have written, or do some research on the ideas you already have.
- Take a break of some kind. Sleep for a while, go for a walk, or work on something else for at least 30 minutes.
- Get a new piece of paper, and write your ideas on it until you can't think of anything else.
- Repeat until you have ideas you're happy with.
Decide Why You Want to Write
It may sound like an obvious tip, but it's worth checking in with yourself: do you know exactly what you want to gain by writing your article?
There is an endless list of topics to write about, which is part of what makes it hard to decide on something. One of the best ways to narrow it down is to consider why exactly you're writing: what's your end goal?
Once you have that firmly in mind, what you should write about becomes much more apparent, at least in general terms.
- If you're writing to submit to a publication, you should focus on topics that go well with what they've already published.
- If you just want to practice your writing, the topic doesn't matter too much.
- If you're writing to learn something specific, you can stop reading. You've answered your question.
- If you're writing to show your competence, focus on what you know a lot about and feel confident writing about.
People write for more reasons than the above, but often, confirming your personal reason brings a lot of clarity.
Follow Your Interests
Your best writing usually comes from topics you're genuinely interested in for their own sake.
Here's advice from Chris Coyier from his article on advice for technical writing:
If you want to write for CSS-Tricks and you ask me what you should write about, I'm probably going to turn that question around on you. It's likely I don't know you well enough to pick the perfect topic for you.
More importantly, what I really want you to write about is something that is personal and important to you. Articles rooted in recent excitement about a particular idea or technology always come out better than dictated assignments. (Source: advice on technical writing)
If you're having difficulty deciding on a topic, try and start with the topics that interest you, even if you're not an expert.
Maybe you've always wanted to learn about web automation, CSS art, or game development. Do some research into your interests, and pick something to write from there.
Everything Has Already Been Written About
Even when you have a topic in mind, a common frustration is that it can sometimes feel like everyone has already written about the topic you want to write about.
And that's probably true. Unless you're writing about a very new or unpopular framework or language, the odds are good that someone has already covered the subject in some way.
That doesn't mean you can't still write about your topic of choice, but you have to get a little creative.
Here's Quincy Larson's advice on the subject (the relevant snippet stops at 5:20):
As you can see, even if other people have already written something about your topic, there's a good chance you can still write about it.
This is Chris Coyier's best advice on picking something to write about:
Personally, I apply this advice by googling my topic to see what people have already written about it. After that, I check if I can find anything missing from what I read:
- Does it go into enough detail?
- Was it explained clearly enough?
- Would it benefit from a more practical approach?
- Is the content out of date?
- Is there another way to apply this content?
Sometimes, you won't find anything missing, especially with very old or foundational topics. But often enough, you can find a way to contribute something of value to the existing writing.
Also, keep in mind that the way you explain things might resonate with someone in a way that nothing else out there does.
Don't Rehash the Docs
I know I just said you shouldn't rehash the docs, but it's actually okay in a few scenarios:
- You're writing mainly to help yourself learn the concept or practice writing
- The official documentation is glaringly deficient in detail or clarity
- Your writing offers a significantly different perspective or substantial improvement
On the other hand, if you're writing for other people to read, and the official docs are already reasonably good, it's probably a better idea to build a tutorial showcasing the concept or write about your experience using it than to simply explain it again.
I hope you had fun reading this and that you'll find choosing a topic to write about much easier from here on out.
This article didn't cover how to actually write once you've come up with a topic. If you'd like to read advice on turning your idea into an article, check out the following links:
- Advice for technical writing
- How to write technical blog posts people will actually read
- Technical Writing One
Good luck, and follow me on Twitter to see more of my writing.