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The Writing Process, Part I: Choosing a Topic

When I began writing my blog in July 2011, I promised that I would devote space to the writing life, and so I have. Yet most postings have discussed substantive chapters for a book that I am currently writing. Beginning with this post, I want to discuss the writing process for non-fiction books.


First up: Choosing a topic.


I know, I know. You may be saying to yourself, “that seems awfully elementary. I can choose a topic for myself, thank you very much. How hard can it be?”


Not so fast. Choosing the right topic can be daunting, far more challenging than it appears at first blush. I know a fellow teacher, a well-respected scholar who has published academic articles and attracted numerous grants. He is a full professor. My colleague confessed that he has never written a book because he cannot imagine spending anywhere from two to five years laboring on a single project. He fears that he will become bored and abandon the project before completing the manuscript.


He is right to feel this way. One of the most difficult parts of writing a book is sticking with it day in and day out. No one is watching, and life gets in the way. Unless the writer is trying to meet a deadline in a book contract, it is easy to let things slide. Work calls. The children are sick. It is vacation time. Something good is on television and it’s time to binge-watch Netflix.


My fellow teacher raises an excellent point. If you are writing a book, you need to pick a topic that you want to spend years exploring. If it’s something that bores you to death, you might never finish the project.


The topic must be framed correctly. I was once thinking about writing a book on environmental issues. Initially, I contemplated writing about global environmental challenges. The problem is that the topic of global environmental challenges is so large and diverse that it would have taken the better part of a decade and more than 1,000 printed pages to cover the subject, assuming I possessed the expertise to complete the project in the first place. Also, it would be difficult to find a publisher for the tome. I settled for writing about American environmental issues, which was a challenging enough topic.


A writer needs to find a topic that has not been researched to death, but he or she also should not choose a topic that is so esoteric and narrow that no one is interested. Notice that these are not hard-and-fast rules. Many thousands of books and articles have been written about Abraham Lincoln. You might think there is nothing left to say, and yet new material on Lincoln is published every year. At the other end of the spectrum, many new monographs on extremely narrow topics appear each year. Still, as a rule of thumb, you want to pick a topic between the extremes unless you have some new or groundbreaking information to share.


Pick a topic that you have the expertise to write about. I once thought about writing a book on Thomas Jefferson’s experiences in Paris. I soon discovered that many books and articles have been written on the topic. I did not believe that I could add anything of value to the literature. Moreover, much of the primary research material was written in French. Because I do not speak French, I would have to find English translations or have translations made. Some of the original sources were digitized, but others were not. I did not relish the thought of shelling out funds to perform original research in France. The bottom line: This was not the right topic for me. As Clint Eastwood once said, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”


Assuming the author is not revising his doctoral dissertation or expanding an article that he has already been written, the best advice for picking a topic is to examine books already published. If the author intends to write about Episcopal clergymen in South Carolina during the Reconstruction era—my current topic, by the way—he is well advised to search for books on this subject. Once the writer knows what has already been published on the topic, he or she can find a niche that has not been explored.


After choosing the topic, the next step is to select a possible publisher. Stay tuned. I will discuss that issue in my next blog.

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