How I find a writing topic

A friend shared something about toxic blogs last week, which got me thinking to a change I made to how I find a writing topic last fall, when I set out to make my own blog less toxic.

When I write, I keep one question in mind: Is this going to help one person a week for the next several years, if not decades?

It’s often helpful to follow that up with a second question: Do I have something to say about this that nobody else is saying? When the answer is yes, write it!

It’s a bit ambitious perhaps, but worth asking the two questions, and it’s surprising how many things do fall into that category. I keep the questions in mind whenever I sit down to write, and there have been times I realized the answer to one or both questions was no, so I stopped writing and moved to a different topic.

I stumbled across this by accident. I’ve known for several years that there was a pattern to my most popular blog posts, and that general pattern was that my most popular stuff helped people solve a problem they were having.

Finding what would be helpful, and helpful enough to stand the test of time, took a while. For years I was wrong more than I was right, and more often than not I fell into writing something that would only be useful for a few days, if at all.

But over time, the collection of posts that were still getting hits on a daily basis years after I had written them grew to a point where I had something to replicate. Last fall, I sat down with a spreadsheet and made a list of things I could write about that would help solve a problem or answer a question like those popular posts did. I came up with enough ideas to fill several months’ worth of content. Frequently one of those ideas would lead to another.

The toxicity comes from the stuff that’s not useful or helpful. Rants can be entertaining, but they aren’t helpful. They lead to people saying they agree or disagree, which will probably lead to another rant.

Admittedly, this kind of writing is very formulaic. Some of the advice I read said to be even more formulaic, although I’m unconvinced some of the advice was actually helpful. It’s formulaic like pop music, but given a choice, I think I’d rather be formulaic than toxic. Besides, a lot of toxic writing is formulaic too.

Formulaic or not, it helps people, and I’m happier, and those are both good things.

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