Generating Column Topics

When I sit down to start drafting my column, I don’t always have a topic figured out. I typically free write to generate ideas but sometimes I get stuck. When that happens I’ll brainstorm instead. I have different formats to do this.

Having a variety of different breakthrough techniques to pick from shakes up my writing routine and helps trigger ideas. One technique I use is listing words related to a specific topic like the current season, latest news, rural life, ranch life, cows, marriage, or parenting, for example. I jot down as many related words as I can think of. Once I have a satisfactory list, I go back and add as many details as possible related to each word. I continue to do this until ideas start building on a few of the topics and I feel like I’ve gotten enough base material to start a draft, or a whole new topic surfaces that will provide an adequate amount of content. I’ll add off-the-wall stuff, quotes, feelings, thoughts, and experiences for content possibilities.

 Another technique I use is called mind mapping.

On a blank sheet of paper, I’ll write the main idea with a circle around it in the middle and draw connecting branches to related ideas—as many as I can think of until the page is filled. This technique helps trigger more details or sometimes completely different ideas.

Branching is a technique similar to mind mapping that I use to get ideas to surface.

I start with writing the main idea in the middle and draw a few branching lines with divisions of that topic, then draw smaller branching lines of subsets to each division of the main idea.

As an example, I recently did a column about branding, which was my main topic. I wrote out subtopics about branding like calves, equipment, the meal, traditions, people, weather, laundry, etc. Under each subtopic, I listed further. For people, I listed neighbors, ranch kids, vaccinators, branders, calf wrestlers, ear-taggers, ropers, mothers, kitchen help, etc. I added little details for each that eventually spurred the idea I used for my column about how my son evolved as a calf wrestler at brandings over the years.

I go through this process a lot when I sit down to draft a column either to get started or build interesting content. I have a big composting pile of bits and pieces I’ve written and collected over the years of topic ideas or column starts that fizzled out but kept for reuse later. I have recycled and combined a lot of these with new ideas that needed more content. 

Listing, mind mapping, and branching is not just for writers. These breakthrough techniques can be a creative way to generate ideas for anything regardless of one’s work. Branching is also a great way to organize a lot of material. Sometimes I have too much material and these techniques break it up into different categories that could be future columns.

To learn more about branching and other breakthrough techniques for writers, check out the book, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, by Henriette Anne Klauser.

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