29 Supplemental Reading #1: Planning to Write

Choosing a Topic

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize general topics that are too broad for a single writing assignment.
  2. Realize that you can and should massage a writing topic so that it interests you.
  3. Understand how to narrow a topic down to match your needs.

Life is simply too short not to write about topics that interest you. You don’t have to be an expert in a topic already, but you should be sufficiently interested in exploring it for a sustained period. Your readers will quickly pick up on your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for a topic. Following up on personal interest can, at best, make a writing project fun, and at the very least, keep you (and your readers) from being miserable.

Most college writing instructors will not dictate too narrow a topic area, in part because they don’t have any interest in being bored and in part because they believe that topic generation is an important piece of the student writer’s job. But let’s explore a worst-case scenario, just to show how you can make practically any topic your own. Let’s say you are given an assignment to explore the history of South Dakota within a ten-page essay. Clearly, you can’t cover the whole state in ten pages. Rather, you would think about—and maybe research a little bit—aspects of South Dakota that might be interesting to you and your readers. Let’s say that you are a motorcycle enthusiast, and you are interested in Sturgis, South Dakota. Or perhaps your great-great-grandmother was a Dakota Indian, and you are interested in the Dakota Indian tribe. Or maybe you are an artist and you are interested in the corn mosaics on the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. The point is that, if you think about South Dakota enough, you can find some direction of personal interest.


Assigned Topic:

The History of South Dakota

Personal Interest Direction:

The Motorcycle Rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota

First Narrowing of Topic:

The Acceptance by Locals of the Mass Influx of Motorcycles over the Years

Final Topic:

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area

Once you choose a direction of interest, such as the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, you still have to narrow this secondary topic into a topic that you can cover in ten pages and that has an interesting point. A method of moving from your general topic of interest to your final topic is to ask questions and let your answers guide you along. The following questions and answers show how this self-discussion could go.

Question #1: How do the Sturgis Rallies connect to the history of South Dakota?

Answer: The Sturgis Rallies have been going on for over seventy years, so they are part of the history of South Dakota.

Question #2: Over the years, how have the people of Sturgis felt about all those bikes invading their peaceful little city?

Answer: I bet there are people on both sides of the issue. On the other hand, a lot of people there make a great deal of money on the event.

Question #3: After over seventy years, has the event become such a part of the city that the bikes aren’t really seen as an invasion but rather more like a season that will naturally come?

Answer: It probably has become a natural part of the city and the whole surrounding area. That would be a good topic: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area.

You have begun to narrow your general topic down to a more manageable and interesting set of questions. Now it’s time to bring in the other elements of the rhetorical situation.

Key Takeaways

  • Before starting a writing project, you need to narrow the topic down so that it matches the length of the essay you are to write.
  • Most writing topics can be viewed in a variety of directions, and when you are writing, you should take a topic in a direction that interests you.
  • Self-discussion is a helpful method when trying to narrow a topic down to a manageable size.

Freewriting and Mapping

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize different ways to generate writing ideas.
  2. Understand how freewriting and mapping help generate writing ideas.
  3. Know how to create a map of writing ideas.

After you have settled on a topic, you are ready to explore general ideas that you will include when you start writing. You can generate these ideas with whatever brainstorming method works best for you, such as browsing the Internet to do an interconnected search from topic to topic, talking or texting with others, creating related visuals, asking yourself questions, freewriting and mapping. In this section, we will explore these latter two options.

Freewriting requires finding a quiet place to write without distraction. Most versions involve starting with a word or phrase (usually your topic) and writing (or typing) about it without stopping for five minutes. It’s helpful to set a timer for each round of freewriting. After the first five-minute period, you examine your text for any phrases or words that look interesting to you. Circle them (or if you are typing, highlight, italicize, bold, or underline them). In the second round, you freewrite for another five uninterrupted minutes on your choice of the most interesting word or phrase from your first freewrite. Sometimes even a third round can help you narrow the topic further. For each round of freewriting, you should be unconcerned about your writing’s grammar or mechanics, how it would look to an outside audience, or even whether it would make sense to anyone but you. Freewriting is all about idea generation and exploration.

Mapping is a great visual means of gathering your ideas. Also called clustering and branching or making a web, mapping lets you add as many ideas as you can think of and organize them as you go along. You have four general options for mapping.

  1. Use concept-mapping software such as Inspiration or SmartDraw.
  2. Use concept-mapping websites
  3. Create your own circles and lines within a word processing program.
  4. Draw your map by hand.

No one option is superior to another. You should choose the option that works best for you. Using whichever option you choose, the point is to start with your main topic and then think of related subtopics and, for each subtopic, to think of supporting details resulting in a visual that shows the relationships between the key points of your writing plan. Since mapping is actually a visual brainstorming process, you do not have to generate your ideas in an orderly fashion. When you think of an idea, you can add it wherever it fits across the map.

In the concept-mapping software, you will be able to choose the level of the point you will add as well as the larger idea to which you want to attach each point. If you are creating your concept map structure yourself, make it clear to which level each addition belongs.

Study Figure 1 “Concept Map of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally” for clarification on how the process works. This map was made in Microsoft Word by creating circles, squares, and lines and placing them by hand into position. You can use all circles or all squares or whatever shape(s) you would like. This map uses a combination of squares and circles to make the subtopics stand out clearly from the details. This map also uses color to differentiate between levels.

Concept Map of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Figure 1: “Concept Map of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally”. Provided byWriter’s HandbookLicenseCC BY-NC-SA 3.0

When the ideas stop flowing, put your map away and return to it later for another brainstorming session. Keep your freewrites and maps close at hand and feel free to add tidbits when they come to you. Get into the habit of keeping a writing pad and pen or pencil (or just your cell phone) next to your bed, so that you can jot down or text ideas as they come to you in the middle of the night. When you are comfortable that your map offers a good representation of the points you want to include in your paper, use it as a guide during the writing process.

Key Takeaways

  • To generate ideas for your writing, you can use whatever brainstorming method works well for you. Some common methods include browsing the Internet to do an interconnected search from topic to topic, talking or messaging with others, creating related visuals, asking yourself questions, freewriting, mapping, and outlining.
  • Mapping is a method of visually generating ideas while showing the relationships between the ideas.
  • You can create a map using software that is specifically designed for concept mapping, creating your own shapes and lines within a word processing program, or drawing your map by hand. The best method is the one that works best for you in a given situation.

Developing Your Purposes for Writing

Learning Objectives

  1. Know how to identify the ideal voice, audience, and message for a given topic.
  2. Explore the multiple purposes you have for writing.
  3. Recognize how your writing process depends on the relationship between voice and message (attitude), message and audience (reception), and voice and audience (tone).
  4. Learn how to use a statement of purpose as a tool for strategizing about, reflecting on, and presenting your work.

This section will show you how to use both the corners and the sides of the rhetorical triangle as tools for thinking, planning, and writing. Notice how these choices you make about purpose, message, audience, and voice are never made in isolation.

  • Purpose: You may think that purpose can be boiled down to one of these single verbs or phrases:
    • To analyze
    • To ask for support
    • To call to action
    • To clarify
    • To convince
    • To counter a previously stated opinion
    • To describe
    • To entertain
    • To inform
    • To make a request
    • To make people think
    • To persuade
    • To share feelings
    • To state an opinion
    • To summarize

However, your real purposes for writing are really more complicated, interesting, and dynamic than this simple list. Purpose involves all three sides and all three corners of the rhetorical triangle: not only do you want to make your audience feel or think a certain way about your message, but you also want to explore and refine your own thoughts and feelings about that message, and furthermore, you want to establish a certain kind of relationship with your audience through the act of conveying your message to them.

  • Audience: Sometimes your instructor will specify the audience for an essay assignment, but more often than not, this choice will be left up to you. If it’s your call, ask yourself, “Who would benefit the most from receiving this message?” Not asking that simple question, not choosing a specific audience for your essay, will be a missed opportunity to sharpen your skills as a communicator. By identifying your audience, you can conjecture how much your readers will know about your topic and thus gauge the level of information you should provide. You can determine what kind of tone is best for your audience (e.g., formal or informal, humorous or serious). Based on what you know about your audience, you can even decide the form you want your writing to take (e.g., whether to write a descriptive or more persuasive essay). Knowing your audience will guide many of the other choices you make along the way.
  • Message: Regardless of whether your topic is assigned to you or you come up with it on your own, you still have some room to develop your message. Be prepared to revise your message once you have fleshed out your own thinking about it  and sharpened your sense of audience and purpose thinking.
  • Voice: Regardless of whether you’re writing in an academic or a nonacademic context, you draw from a range of voices to achieve a variety of purposes. Each of the purposes listed above has an appropriate voice. If you are writing an essay to fulfill a class assignment, with your instructor as your primary if not exclusive audience, then your voice has pretty much been established for you. In such an instance, you are a student writing in a traditional academic context, subject to the evaluation of your instructor as an expert authorized to judge your work. But even in this most restrictive case, you should still try to develop a distinctive voice based on what you hope to accomplish through your writing.

Once you have identified your purposes and the corners of the rhetorical triangle, it’s time to do some preliminary thinking about the relationships between those corners—that is, the sides: voice and message (attitude), message and audience (reception), and voice and audience (tone). Finish the sentences below.

Image of six rhetorical situations.
Figure 2: “Your Rhetorical Situation”. Provided byWriter’s HandbookLicenseCC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Near the beginning of the writing project, you could write up a preliminary statement of purpose based on how you complete these sentences and use it as a strategy memo of sorts:

Voice: I am writing as a person unfamiliar with South Dakota culture who has been assigned the task of writing about it.

Message: I want to convey the message that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is an interesting phenomenon of popular culture.

Audience: I want to write to my teacher and the other members of my writing group.

Attitude: My attitude toward the subject is pretty neutral right now, bordering on bored, until I find out more about the topic.

Reception: I want my audience to know that I know how to research and write about any topic thrown at me.

Tone: My tone toward my readers is semiformal, fairly objective, like a reporter, journalist, or anthropologist.

Because all the elements of the triangle are related to each other, all are subject to change when the direction of your work changes, so be open to the idea of returning to these questions several times over the course of your writing project. When you are ready to turn in your project, revise your preliminary statement of purpose into a final version, or writer’s memo, as a way of presenting and packaging your project, especially if your instructor invites such reflection and commentary.

Here’s an example of a writer’s memo submitted with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally essay:

Voice: I am writing as a kind of social historian and observer of a specific example of popular culture.

Message: I want to convey the message that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has become an important part of the identity of Sturgis and the surrounding area.

Audience: I want to write to my instructor and classmates—but also to the citizens of Sturgis, South Dakota.

Attitude: My attitude toward the subject is neutral to positive. In general I think the rally has been good for Sturgis over the years.

Reception: I want my audience to understand and appreciate Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and maybe to think about how something like it could work well in our community.

Tone: My tone toward my readers will be informal but informative, and occasionally humorous, to fit the craziness of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Key Takeaways

  • When completing a class assignment, your instructor will often dictate a required writing form. When you are able to choose your own writing form, you should choose a form that you think would work well for your planned writing.
  • Understanding your audience allows you to gauge the level of information you should provide, choose a tone you want to use, and decide the approach you want to take.
  • Your purposes for writing include what you want to learn about your own message, how you want your audience to receive your message, and the kind of working relationship you want to establish with your audience.


Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize that an outline allows you to visually see the relationships between ideas for a writing project.
  2. Understand that you can create an outline by hand but that using a computer provides useful conveniences.
  3. Understand the lettering and numbering system and the indenting system used in outlining.

Your instructor may make decisions about the form your essay will take, dictating whether you are supposed to write in a particular genre. But if you’re given some choice or flexibility about form, just as in the case of voice, audience, and message, you need to make the most of that responsibility. Regardless of who dictates form, you or your instructor, know what form your writing should take and make sure it suits the voice, audience, and message. Some common forms of writing include the following:

  • Argument
  • Book review
  • Case study
  • Comparative analysis
  • Critique
  • Informative essay or report
  • Lab report
  • Opinion essay
  • Personal narrative
  • Persuasive essay
  • Proposal
  • Research report

An outline is another way to visually see the relationships between ideas you are gathering. You can create an outline by hand or on a computer. If you create one by hand, leave a blank space so you can fit additional ideas in within different areas. Using a computer for your outline is preferable since you can easily add ideas and move ideas around.

Start with your core idea as the beginning point of the outline. Then use roman numerals to add the subtopics followed by indented capital letters for the details. If you add finer details, you can use further-indented numbers for the next level and even-further-indented lowercase letters for a level after that. When using a computer, the preset tabs are most likely fine for the indenting.

The outline below relates to the map from the last section. It is simply another way to accomplish the same process of idea gathering. Notice that the writer here has made a sentence outline by writing out each element in a complete sentence. This strategy will help this writer move more easily from outline to essay draft.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area

  1. Bike Week has been going on for more than seventy years.
    1. It is an automatic assumption by locals that Bike Week will be held each year.
    2. Most locals have never known life without Bike Week.
  2. Bike Week is a key element of area finances.
    1. Millions of dollars flow into the area economy.
    2. Sturgis and the surrounding cities have invested heavily in the function.
    3. Although the actual Bike Week is a central focus, bikers come here for months on either side of the week to ride the famous routes.
  3. The area has grown and developed around Bike Week.
    1. Every small town has a Harley-Davidson store.
    2. Merchants continually create new products to sell to bikers.
    3. The locals are very accepting and supportive of the bikers.
  4. People around the world recognize Sturgis for Bike Week.
    1. People attend Bike Week from all fifty states and many other countries.
    2. Although Sturgis has only a few thousand people, the town is known around the world.

As with the mapping process, once you have included all the ideas you have, take a break and return to your outline later. If, in the meantime, a thought comes to you, take a minute to add it. When you are satisfied with your outline, use it to guide your writing process. However, keep in mind that your outline is only a tool you are using, and you will vary from it when you have other ideas along the way.

Key Takeaways

  • Outlining uses roman numerals, numbers, letters, and indenting to visually show how ideas are related.
  • You can create an outline by hand, but using a computer gives you much greater flexibility to add ideas and move ideas around.
  • Within an outline, the numbering/lettering order is as follows:
    • I.
    • A.
    • 1.
    • a.

From Outlining to Drafting

So far we’ve presented “organizing” and “drafting” as two separate steps on the writing process continuum. While there are distinct differences between the two stages, the line between these steps is the muddiest of the entire writing process. Ideally, as you’re working on an essay project, you won’t be able to draw a clear line between when you stop working on organizing and start working on your first essay draft.
Remember from the previous section that there are several different kinds of outlines:

  • Roman or Arabic Numeral (highly structured)
  • bullet point (loosely structured)
  • mind map
  • timeline
  • PowerPoint

Roman Numeral Outline

Thesis statement: Email and internet monitoring, as currently practiced, is an invasion of employees’ rights in the workplace.

    1. The situation: Over 80% of today’s companies monitor their employees.
      1. To prevent fraudulent activities, theft, and other workplace related violations.
      2. To more efficiently monitor employee productivity.
      3. To prevent any legal liabilities due to harassing or offensive communications.
    2. What are employees’ privacy rights when it comes to electronic monitoring and surveillance in the workplace?
      1. American employees have basically no legal protection from mean and snooping bosses.
        1. There are no federal or State laws protecting employees.
        2. Employees may assert privacy protection for their own personal effects.
      2. Most managers believe that there is no right to privacy in the workplace.
        1. Workplace communications should be about work; anything else is a misuse of company equipment and company time
        2. Employers have a right to prevent misuse by monitoring employee communications

Arabic Numeral Outline

Timeline Outline
Figure 3: “Image of Contents Outline“. Provided by: Wikipedia. LicenseCC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Bullet Point Outline

Timeline Outline
Figure 4: “Outline“. Authored by: Glynis Jolly. LicenseCC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial

Mind Map Outline

Timeline Outline
Figure 5: “Outline Meme: Language and Internet“. Authored by: Frank Dai. LicenseCC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

Timeline Outline

Timeline Outline
Figure 6: “Presentation Outline“. Authored by: Sean MacEntee. LicenseCC BY: Attribution

Wrap Up

Whichever outline you’ve started with, it can conveniently morph into an essay draft, simply by picking an area to attack. Start fleshing it out with full sentences, complete thoughts, and relevant sources.

One of the many advantages to working from an outline is that you don’t have to begin your draft at the beginning of the paper. Pick a section you feel strongly about, and start there. Hopscotch around your outline in whatever order you choose, in order to keep the momentum going.


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