Blogging support groups are full of new writers asking the more seasoned ones how to come up with topics. I would argue they are having trouble because they’re brainstorming topics instead of questions.
Brainstorming topics is hard. Some bloggers start by writing a headline. Then they analyze the headline, wondering if it would “sell” to readers. Then they doubt their idea and self-edit before they ever start.
Brainstorming questions is much easier. All you have to do is write down all the things you’re curious about. Start by looking around your writing space. Why are pens sold in packs of 12? Why is 4×6 still the predominant photo print size? What can kids learn from reading banned and challenged books?
When you run out of ideas, move to a new room. How is refrigerator size changing the way Americans eat? What are the advantages of teaching knife skills to young kids?
Write your questions on a piece of paper and keep that paper where you can see it. If it’s been a few days and you’re still curious about something on that list, you know you have a question worth studying.
This question-posing strategy works well for any size project. The questions I posed above have turned into posts on my research-focused parenting blog, snackdinner, as well as freelance contributions for Parent Co. The strategy works for longer projects, too. When I began a book project this fall, my first step was to list all of the questions I hoped to answer. Those 46 questions have helped me produce a complete first draft.
What follows are 5 tips to help you take those questions and use them to generate strong pieces of writing. Although the examples come from my parent-focused research and writing, you can use a similar question-posing strategy to tackle any research question.
1) Pose open-ended questions
If you’re asking yes/no questions, you probably already know how you’d answer them. Does co-sleeping hurt babies? The answer to that question is deeply tied to your sense of success as a parent. You can’t research it because in your mind, there can only be one right answer.
Try asking open-ended questions like Why is the debate over co-sleeping erupting on social media? or Where do all the recalled toys go? or Why doesn’t there seem to be good data about the effects of medication on pregnant women?
2) Break your big question into little questions
A good research question will lead you to lots more questions. When I started researching this piece about why parents can stop checking their baby monitors, my overarching question was What are the chances that babies will die in their sleep? To answer that question, I had to answer a lot of smaller questions:
- On average, how many babies are born in the United States each year?
- What is the US infant mortality rate? Are children more likely to die in the first month than at other times of the year? Might this be a result of better prenatal care and NICUs, such that babies who would have died in utero elsewhere in the world are born alive in the US?
- How are deaths distributed over the first year?
- What percentage of healthy babies coming home from the hospital survive their first year?
3) Match your research strategy to your little questions
Different types of research questions need different kinds of research.
Say you want to study the impact of screen time on kids. Depending on your approach, you might need psychology articles about how parent-child relationships are impacted by screen time, or education articles about how screen time impacts vocabulary building, or even government time-use statistics that show what activities screen time is replacing.
Not all research questions require academic journal articles to answer. If you want to write about weird cases of corporal punishment in schools, you’ll need local newspapers. If you want to describe what the first day of kindergarten feels like, you’ll need to interview children, parents, and teachers experiencing the first day of kindergarten.
4) Put the answers to your questions in context
If I told you that about every 3 minutes a child is brought to an ER after falling on playground equipment, have I taught you anything about how dangerous playground equipment is?
No. I’ve told you how frequently children fall off playground equipment, probably terrifying you off the slide in the process.
It’s not clear whether kids are getting injured on playgrounds at a higher rate than at any other place they play. I haven’t shown you how bad the playground problem is because I haven’t given you a denominator. I haven’t compared emergency room visits from falls to other types of emergency room visits.
If I don’t tell you why the math is misleading, I may make you terrified of the playground. If I put the math in context, you may feel better about going outside and taking on acceptable risks.
5) Keep adding to your list of questions
If you use a question-building approach to brainstorming and writing, eventually you’ll realize you have plenty to write about. As you research one question, you’re inevitably going to find new things to be curious about.
In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon offers this advice to writers who get stalled between projects: “Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.” If you keep a list of questions in the margins of the piece you’re working on, you’ll inevitably have a few you couldn’t answer. Start your next piece with those questions.