Choosing a Subject

Whether you write on an assigned subject or choose your own, you need to get focused and engaged with the project. Assigned subjects may look restrictive at first, but on closer inspection, they can offer plenty of room for individual expression. Open subjects, while promising great freedom, can be daunting because they don't give you direction. They leave it all up to you.

Yet these two situations, different as they appear, present similar challenges. Either way, you need to find your center of interest and discover what you can say that your reader will value. And a good way to begin, whether your subject is open or assigned, is by writing. Just worrying or "mulling things over" seldom works. Worry increases anxiety, and ideas you don't write down get lost or forgotten. Writing ideas down gives them substance and form, so you can return later and reshape or add to them.

To get started, then, don't worry about your subject--start writing. Let the process get messy and complicated. Allow yourself freedom to make mistakes. Or head off on a tangent. Mistakes often turn into discoveries. A tangent can develop into a central focus. Try Freewriting or The Journalist's Questions. Experiment with the following activities. Get carried away. Then pause. Look back over what you've written. Look for patterns, flashes of insight, overriding concerns. Cut. Paste. Add. Move. You'll find that you're well on your way.

As you locate your center of interest, you may want to narrow the scope of your subject, to make it more manageable and specific. For more information on sharpening and focusing a subject, see From Subject to Thesis.


1.1 Make a five to seven item list of writing possibilities. Include one or two "off-the-wall" topics. For instance, if your assigned subject was the Civil War, you might list "strange army hats" as an off-the-wall possibility and later decide it could make a good essay. If possible, talk your list over with a partner or small group.

1.2 Take two items from the list you made for Activity 1.1 and divide the subjects into parts on branching trees, as in the example below.

Hint: Just copy the table below to your word processor, delete the Civil War terms, and replace them with your own.

Rationale for
Acts of Reconstruction
For North
For South

1.3 Try crossmatching and combining possibilities from your branching trees. Phrase the results as questions:

How did the different social values of the South and the North account for the problems of Reconstruction?

What economic problems did the South experience as a result of the Reconstruction?

How did economic changes caused by the Reconstruction affect social relationships in the South?

Generate as many questions as possible. Don't worry about whether your questions are profound. Include a few off-the-wall questions if you want.


In everyday talk with friends and family, we shape our ideas freely and spontaneously as words rise to the surface of our attention and find their way into conversation. We discover what we have to say by saying it. And in the process we often surprise ourselves with fresh perceptions and powerful language. Freewriting is an attempt to capture that same energy on paper. Too often, writers reject their own thoughts before even writing them down, and as a result, talk themselves out of ideas that might be valuable.

Freewriting means just what it says: writing freely, without restrictions. When freewriting, you can just write whatever you like without regard to spelling, grammar, paragraphing, or whether it makes any sense. Just let your thoughts wander and follow the ones you like best. Let the others go and pick them up later if you want. Relax and loosen the grip on your pen, enjoy feeling the ink flow, shaping your letters, seeing your thoughts and feelings take shape on the page. Or turn off your computer monitor so you can't see (and judge) what you're writing. If your mind slows down, slow down your writing speed. Then when your thoughts come faster, pick up your pace. Try getting your mind and fingers to work at the same speed, or let one go ahead and pull the other along.

The only thing you shouldn't do is stop. Then you aren't discovering, aren't writing. You may feel a little stiff and self-conscious when you first try freewriting--most people do--but don't let that bother you. It's unavoidable. Just keep going, and you'll soon discover what you want to say. Once you do, follow your idea to the end and then move to another. Later on, you can look back over your freewriting and decide what to keep or change or delete. For now, just relax and write.


1.4 Practice freewriting for fifteen minutes. You'll be amazed at how much you can write in such a short time. Just start right in. Don't worry about not having anything to say. If that's what you find yourself thinking, just write, "I don't have anything to say," and keep going from there. As long as you keep your fingers moving, something will be drawn out of you.

One of the hardest things you can do is empty your mind of thoughts. Try it and you'll see.

You have the thoughts, just write them down. Don't hold them in. Let your mind go where it will. Turn off your computer monitor. Try adjusting the flow of your thoughts to your writing speed. You don't have to show this to anyone!

1.5 Practice focusing your freewrites. Write for twenty minutes about how you feel about writing; whether you like it or not, whether you've had much experience, what you think you need to work on most, what you'd like to write, or whatever else you want to say about writing.

1.6 Try "looping" your freewriting. Look back over an earlier freewrite and find a sentence or phrase that stands out for you. Write it down and use it as the starting point for a new freewrite. Repeat the process.

Observing and Recording Details

Most of us, when we think of what to write, think immediately of ideas, but we'd do well to remember the words of William Carlos Williams, "No ideas but in things." Williams wasn't knocking ideas, just reminding us that ideas have their roots in the concrete particulars of daily experience. They grow out of what we see, taste, smell, and feel: the early morning steam rising from a high mountain lake; a fat, ripe strawberry dipped in thick whipped cream; the waiting room of a dentist's office; or the crunch of people pouring onto a subway at rush hour.

Whenever we read a book, attend a concert, or simply visit with a friend, we relate to the world outside through our senses. William Blake called the senses "the doors of perception." By opening or closing these doors a little, we control the amounts and kinds of input we receive. In class, our ears hear the teacher's words and tone of voice, the intonations and rhythms in her speech. At the same time, our eyes see her changing facial expressions and the gestures of her hands, the way she leans on the lectern or paces from desk to window. These are all parts of the class, and the person whose senses are alert will be able to use them as content in a paper.

In fact, though, many of us aren't as aware of our environments as we might be. A college basketball game, a lunch at the student union, even a quiet walk in the woods will produce so many stimuli we can be overwhelmed if we don't limit what we take in.

Ideas are important for organizing and sorting this flow of perceptions, but we can't write about what we aren't aware of, and sensory data is the raw material of writing. To extend your awareness of your subject, take time to really see, taste, hear, smell, and touch whatever you're writing about. Once you remove the veil of habit through which your perceptions are filtered, you'll find the true subject of your writing--not ideas and opinions about the thing, but the thing itself.

For instance, if you're writing a report showing why the copying machine in your office is inadequate and needs to be replaced, you might begin by studying the present machine carefully. You could note its size and write down the exact dimensions. You could describe the worn rubber mat covering the copy plate. You could point to the plate itself, scratched and difficult to align papers on. You might also describe what the copies look like, tell how the paper is loaded and how often the machine jams, whether it makes enlargements and reductions easily.

These details and a hundred others provide your report's content. Your job isn't to think them up or imagine them but to notice them and then write them down where they'll be seen by whoever makes the final decision. This habit of alertness and attention to detail is essential to all good writing. The more fully you involve yourself with your subject, the more you'll find to say about it.


1.7 Select an object you have with you now--a pen, a ring, a watch, a shoe, a book--and begin writing about it. If you have a favorite possession with you, that's fine, but what you pick isn't important. Almost anything will do. Describe the object thoroughly. What is its shape, its color, its texture? How long is it? Does it make a sound? Does it show signs of age? Does it have any taste or odor? Concentrate on asking and answering questions about the item itself rather than telling where you got it or how you feel about it. Don't worry about grammar or mechanics; just get down a clear and complete a description. Do notice, though, how much you can find to say about even the most trivial and unpromising subject when you concentrate on observing and recording details.

1.8 Select a book--any book. Begin writing down as many actual details about it as you can. What is its title? Who is its author? How many pages does it have? When was it published? By whom? Does it have a preface? What are its major divisions? Its subdivisions? What color is it? Just keep writing. Don't give ideas or judgments about the book. Just give the facts. Write for about twenty minutes. At the end, write a one sentence wrap-up statement to tie your observations together and give a sense of completion. If you wish, use this sentence to offer an overall impression of the book, based on the details you've observed and recorded.

The Journalist's Questions

The six questions traditionally asked by journalists--who? what? when? where? how? and why?--can be valuable aids to invention in all types of writing. By using them to probe your subject, you will focus your subject more precisely, and as you do, you'll find pertinent things to say.

The six main questions can also be broken down into subtopics that offer more precise guidance than the major questions. Neither the questions nor the subtopics need to be applied in any special order, nor are they equally valuable for all writing situations. Use them if and when they can help you achieve your particular purpose with a given audience.


Like the other questions, this one's value depends upon the spirit in which you use it. On the most superficial level, it might yield only a word or two: "this guy I know" or "Aunt Ginny." But answering the question that way is almost like not answering it at all. Getting beyond the surfaces of people--their names, labels, sizes--takes some time and concentration, but adds vital information and force to your writing. The list below contains only a few examples of the kinds of information you can provide under the heading of who.

Subtopics for Exploring the Question of Who

Physical Attributes Personality TraitsPersonal History Characteristic Possessions
weight sense of humorreligious books
height tempereducational home furnishings
bone structurefriendlinessmedical athletic equipment
hair honestyeconomic collections
eyes generositymilitary pets
musculature leadershipgeographic home
coordination competitivenessfamily clothing
body language compassionprofessional records
complexion self-assuranceethnic automobile

This list isn't meant to be complete. Probably you've already thought of possibilities, even entire categories, that could be included. You may also have seen that many subtopics could be broken down further and discussed at length, "clothing," for instance. When you see this, you're starting to understand what it means to ask and answer the question of who.


The question of what can open up interesting avenues of exploration. A whole essay might explore what happened, some event or incident you've chosen to tell about. You may want to show what a family reunion or a Cesarean section or a Bar Mitzvah or an elk hunt is. By seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling the events, people, and things in your essay, your readers discover what the subject is, what it means for you, and what you want it to mean for them.

Also, most subjects are composites, made up of several parts, and those parts can all be examined and described. What are the various parts of a Bar Mitzvah, for example? How are those parts related to each other? What is the function of each part in relation to the whole?

Subtopics of What
What is its purpose?
What is its value?
What is its shape?
What are its limits?
What class of things does it belong to?
How is it similar to other members of its class?
How does it differ from other members of its class?
What are its parts?
Is it a part of a larger whole?
What is its color, weight, texture, sound, odor?
What is its history?
What are its causes?
What are its effects?
What is its duration?
What is its meaning?
What is its formal definition?

As you can see, the question of what is quite open-ended. If you ask it with imagination and energy, it can lead your writing into interesting territory.


Everything happens in time, and the question of when locates events in time. On the most superficial level, this could mean just giving a date and time: 2:59 p.m., Thursday, July 12, 1996. In most writing, however, such exact fixing of time isn't necessary. "One rainy winter morning just before breakfast" may set the time nicely for one piece, while "Easter Sunday when I was thirteen years old" might do the job for another. When can also be used to show relationships in time, as when we say, "Before stepping up to the ticket booth, I stretched a little to make myself look taller." Like the other questions, when can be subdivided into subtopics that may help you uncover further possibilities for exploration.

Subtopics of When
When did this happen?
How often does it happen?
When had it happened previously?
When will it happen again?
Why didn't it happen at some other time?
What conditions must be met in order for it to happen?
What happened before this?
What happened after this?
What else was happening at the same time?
How would this have been different if it had happened at some other time?
How is it similar to things that have happened at other times?
Was this good or a bad time for it to happen?
When was it first noticed and last observed?
What were the characteristics of the time?
How long did it last?

It's hard to imagine a paper that would use all or even most of these questions. Still, this list should give you an idea of how the question of when can help you discover what to say.


Everything is somewhere, and describing that place serves two important functions. First, it permits your readers to discover the sights, sounds, smells, the whole physical environment that makes the scene real for them and invites them to enter it imaginatively. By adding descriptive detail, you enrich the environmental texture of your essay, making it fuller and more vivid.

Also, your consideration of where can show how the setting influenced events. How was the outcome of the battle affected by the fact that it took place in a steep-walled canyon with only one exit? How was the family reunion influenced by the fact that it took place for the first time at Uncle Ted's house? Might the crawdaddies have turned out differently if you'd cooked them at home in your own kitchen?

Subtopics of Where
What is the immediate location?
What is its size?
What is its shape?
What are its boundaries?
Of what larger area is it a part?
What does it resemble?
How do people perceive it?
What psychological or emotional associations does it have?
What is its history?
What are its dominant sights, smells, sounds?
How is the place influenced by the participants?
How do these events happen to be occurring in this place?

Use the question of where to orient your readers and help them know not only where things are happening but what this place is like and why it is of importance.


The question of how directs our attention to method and procedure, toward process. It reminds us that our readers might not understand the exact nature of the action itself or the various parts, steps, and stages that a larger action is made up of. An essay on a family vacation might discuss how the destination and modes of transportation were chosen, how the reservations were made, how the trip was financed, how the car was packed, how the seating arrangements were made, or how the tie-downs holding the roof rack worked loose. Or you may want to tell how you built a campfire, cleaned a fish, roasted corn, or packed home your trash. The point is that how takes apart both large and small actions so your readers can gain a fuller appreciation of their inner dynamics.

Subtopics of How
What is the goal of this process?
How is success measured?
What is the importance of this process?
Is it primarily a natural or a mechanical process?
Is it primarily a mental or a physical process?
What experience or training is needed?
What preparations must be made?
What equipment is needed?
How does this equipment work?
What is the order of the steps or stages?
How important is this order?
How is each step performed?
What is the level of difficulty?
What is the importance of each step in relation to the whole?
What terminology must be understood
What are the characteristic pitfalls?
What does this process resemble?

As with the other questions, your thoroughness with this one will depend on your readers' needs and interests as well as your purposes in writing. How much do your readers want or need to know about the process of filling out an arrest report? How much do you want them to know? How will their having or not having this information affect the success of your writing? These are the kinds of questions you need to keep in mind when you work with the question of how.


More than the other questions, why asks for reasons, conclusions, thoughts. It asks you to analyze and explain the actions and events you're writing about. For this reason, it's less important to ask why in personal narratives than in writing about ideas. Some writers even say explanation and analysis should be avoided altogether, letting readers draw their own conclusions from the concrete details presented.

That is, writers should show rather than tell what happened and why. For instance, if I show a customer slamming money on a counter and stomping out of a store, I shouldn't have to explain that she did this because she was angry. Readers will draw that conclusion themselves. The point's a good one. Besides being unnecessary, such explanatory passages detract from the writing's vividness, substituting analysis for drama.

This doesn't mean, though, that the question of why shouldn't be asked, only that it should be asked carefully and that its answer will often be revealed implicitly through showing rather than explicitly through direct telling.

Subtopics of Why
Why did this happen?
Why didn't something else happen?
How can we recognize a cause?
How many causes are there?
Which causes are more or less important?
Which are the direct causes?
Which are the indirect causes?
What are the surface motives?
What are the underlying motives?
Why were the motives expressed in this way?
What are the short-term objectives?
What are the long-term objectives?
Why was this method chosen to achieve the objectives?
Were the results intentional or accidental?
If accidental, what circumstances produced the accident?
How might the accident have been prevented?

Whether or not you make great use of the question of why, you should be alert to its possibilities. Like the other questions, it can help you develop a fuller understanding of your subject, and the better you understand your subject, the better your chances of writing well.


1.9 Look back over the questions you wrote for Activity 1.3. What use did you make of the Journalists' Questions? Use the Journalists' Questions, and especially the subtopics, to expand your list. Again, don't worry if your questions are profound or important. Include some off-the-wall questions if you want. Add at least ten new items.

1.10 Look over the list you generated in Activity 1.9. Try to find patterns, areas of related interest, and arrange the questions in groups according to their common concerns.


Developed by Kenneth Burke, and sometimes called the Pentad because of its five key terms, Dramatism offers a simple yet effective way to generate ideas. It resembles the Journalist's Questions and, like them, can be applied to many topics.

The Five Key Terms of Dramatism

Act: What is happening?
Agent: Who is doing it?
Agency: What method is being used?
Purpose: What is the goal, intent, objective?
Scene: Where and when is it happening?

These questions themselves are useful, but the true power of the Pentad comes when the key terms are combined to construct what Burke calls "ratios." These ratios yield a second layer of questions, often more interesting and penetrating than the first.

Act Agent Agency Purpose Scene
Act X
Agent X
Agency X
Scene X

Notice how the ratios of the Pentad can be used to create a master/subquestion pattern:

Purpose: What was the purpose of Reconstruction?
Act/Purpose: How did the Acts of Reconstruction relate to this purpose?
Agent/Purpose: Who determined that this was necessary?
Agency/Purpose: Was this an effective means of accomplishing the purpose?
Scene/Purpose: Why was this goal considered important for the South at that time?


1.11 Use the ratios of the Pentad to construct some master/subquestion combinations on a subject you're interested in writing about.

Agency: ?????
Agency/Purpose: ?????
Agency/Act: ?????
Agency/Scene: ?????
Agency/Agent: ?????

Try one from scratch:


Remember, when using the Pentad or any other discovery aid, that the purpose is to help you open up and explore a subject. You want to find new insights and ideas. Don't let the mechanics of the system bog you down. Use the methods as springboards for your imagination.


Another useful aid to discovering new perspectives is the Tagmemic method, developed by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike. The Tagmemic system uses six master topics to break any subject down into component parts which can then be examined individually or in combination to yield fresh approaches and new insights.


The topic of contrast considers how the subject resembles or differs from other members of its class:

How does the electronics department at Rodbelle's Department Store resemble or differ from that at Pay & Go?


The topic of variation looks at how much and in what ways the subject could change without losing its essential nature:

How often and how much can Rodbelle's mark down electronics prices and cut back service before it becomes a discount store?


The topic of distribution asks how often and in what places the subject can be observed:

How often do major department stores have an electronics department?


The topic of particle identifies the distinct and defining features of the subject:

What are the distinctive features of Rodbelle's Electronics Department?


The topic of wave considers how the subject has changed over time:

How has electronics marketing changed over the past ten years?


The topic of field considers the different parts of the subject and how they interact as parts of a whole:

In what ways does customer service at Rodbelle's relate to sales and profits?


1.12 Pick a subject from the following list, or choose a subject of your own, and use the six Tagmemic topics to generate a list of questions. Possible subjects: your local newspaper, a familiar t.v. show, a restaurant chain, a type of music, an organization or club.







1.13 Share your list of questions from Activity 1.11 with a partner. After comparing and discussing your questions, select two questions and freewrite for fifteen minutes on each one.

Outside Sources

Unlike the other discovery techniques, which mostly help you use your internal powers of observation and imagination, this one emphasizes investigation and research. However vast your store of information and however well you can express your ideas, you'll often need to extend your knowledge by drawing on the experience and expertise of others.

Think of this inquiry as a normal part of writing, not just something you reserve for a "research paper." The difference between a substantive, thoughtful essay and a research paper is one of degree rather than of kind. The best research papers grow out of original ideas or intriguing questions that you want to investigate in depth, and the best essays show that you are well-grounded in your subject. Whether your knowledge-gathering takes place mostly in personal interviews, on the web, or in the library, it's good to start with people.

Talk to an Expert

Your younger brother might be an expert on video games. Your mother might be an expert on baking bread. A real estate agent could give you information on recent trends in home prices. A horse breeder could describe modern branding techniques. A stock broker could explain margin buying. Experts are all around us--in all ages, genders, and races--and most will be eager to share their knowledge if you approach them courteously and with a genuine display of interest.

Before interviewing an expert, however, you should prepare by clarifying what you're looking for. Do some preliminary exploration of your subject with freewriting, the Journalists' Questions, and the other probing techniques. Focus your concerns into master questions and subquestions. Compile a list of topics you want to cover. Make an appointment, and tell the expert that you need the information for a writing project. Ask if you may tape the interview. Make clear that you'll give the expert credit in the final essay. Offer to give the expert a copy. In short, be serious and professional in your approach. If you are, you'll be amazed at how much information you can gather.

Visit the Library

Here, too, start with people. If you aren't familiar with your library's resources, call, explain your purpose, and ask for a tour. Even if you know the library pretty well, go to the Reference Room and introduce yourself. Describe your project and ask if they have resources you might not be aware of. Ask experts you've interviewed (including professors) where they get their information and follow the trail.

When you find a good source, check it out or photocopy it. If you photocopy it, be sure to copy the publication information (date, volume number, etc.) so your can document it later. (See Documenting Your Sources.) If the book or article you've found contains a Bibliography or Works Cited, use it. Get those works. Stay on the trail.


1.14 Locate an expert on one of the following subjects, or use a subject you're currently interested in writing about, and set up an interview. Before going, do some homework on the subject and arrive with a list of questions. Write up a short report telling how the experience went: what you wanted to learn, what difficulties you experienced, what you did learn, and how the information might be useful. Possible subjects: homeopathic medicine, self-defense, home insulation, co-dependency, credit ratings, impressionist painting.

1.15 Use the library to locate as much information as possible on one of the following topics, or use a subject you're currently interested in writing about. When you're finished, write up a short report telling how the experience went: what you wanted to learn, what difficulties you experienced, what you did learn, and how the information might be useful. Possible subjects: nuclear submarines, Charles Mingus, the great vowel shift, passenger pigeons, emissions from diesel engines, Florence Nightingale.

A Final Note:

These discovery strategies can all be useful, but not all are equally useful for all individuals or all writing projects. The key is to be open and flexible. If you find that freewriting is working, stick with it. If Dramatism or Tagmemics helps you, keep practicing that strategy until it becomes reflexive and automatic. If one discovery method doesn't yield results, try another. If you do, you won't have to worry about what to write.