The end of the year is a great time to wrap up projects, but the downtime that often comes with it in the form of holiday office shutdowns, school vacations, and time away from our usual day-to-day is also a useful period to reflect on new writing projects. For many writers, finishing one project before starting another is the way to remain focused, and I’m not advocating that you stray from the task at hand. On the other hand, don’t let contemplative time in the slow days of the year-end holidays go to waste. And don’t shut down any good ideas that might come your way when there is less going on around you.
If you know that you’ll have some free time at the end of the year to think ahead—perhaps on a long car ride or on a plane—get prepared to let new ideas in. In particular, as you brainstorm, ask yourself some essential questions to determine which ideas deserve chasing and further attention.
Is the idea original?
The best nonfiction writers are well-versed in their specific space. They know who else has the same beat, what they are writing, and what they plan to write next. If this doesn’t describe you, look to beef up in the new year: read book reviews (New York Review of Books, London Book Review, and the New York Times Book Review section are good places to start), and follow your favorite writers in your area of nonfiction on Twitter and Facebook.
Of course, you can’t go back through the archives of every book review publication to see if a similar book has already been written. But you can do some targeted research to see what’s out there on a topic you’re considering. Look on Amazon, Google books, and the databases at your local library.
If there’s something written on the same topic you have been mulling, don’t throw in the towel just yet. You just need to take the time to develop a new angle on the idea. There is always something new that a writer can bring to the table—a particular perspective on a significant event that you personally witnessed; a new theory that hasn’t been applied to conflict resolution before; or familiar historical events through the eyes of a person or group whose story hasn’t yet been told.
“In this book, I will explain everything about how global inequality came to be, and how we can stop it.” This is a common line I see in nonfiction book proposals that I reject. Why? Because unless you are an esteemed and distinguished scholar, there is a very low likelihood that you have enough expertise to explain everything about a major problem we face in today’s world. The author who is writing a book like this has bitten off more than they can chew. This never leads to a good book.
A book that is too broadly conceived can be a challenge for readers in many ways. It might be exhausting to read a biography of a person’s entire life instead of just their most influential period. A writer might be trying to give a complete account of a particular issue, but they clearly have one subtopic that they know deeply and end up not giving enough time to other topics. The book easily could become unwieldy or unclear by trying to cover all angles. These are all reasons to be wary of too broad of a topic.
Think about what would be a manageable narrative. What is the most interesting and important? What’s a theme that can carry the story (or logical progression of your ideas)?
The opposite of this, of course, is a topic that’s too narrow. A topic that gets too specific can seem original or like a creative way to give a new spin on an old topic. Four days in the life of Beethoven. Bulgarian politics in 1975. Memoirs of the birth of my little sister. However, the problem with ideas like these is that they don’t have room to expand. There might not be much to say about those four days in Beethoven’s life—and if there is, there’s a good chance that he spent most of them sleeping. The number of people who want to read about Beethoven sleeping is pretty small; even those who like Beethoven might be inclined to put the book down.
Your audience narrows as your topic does. To avoid this, think about what bigger, next-step-out view you can have for your piece that still incorporates the specific thing you want to write about. Maybe those four days in Beethoven’s life were interesting because of the politics at the time—so write about Beethoven and politics!
There is always an outer layer that you can consider to put your piece in the ‘just right’ spot between too broad and too narrow.
Does anyone else care?
Many writers say they are just writing for themselves and for the sheer joy of writing. This may—and should—be a motivating factor. But, we also write to be read.
The topic you write about needs to be compelling to someone who has never heard of it before or has no previous stake in the story being told. I often have to turn down people who are writing the biography of the family patriarch or the history of their small town. There might be some interest from their families or the nicest 30 current inhabitants of that small town, but outside of that, the audience is tiny if not nonexistent.
You don’t need to write a bestseller or a viral piece—in fact, you probably won’t. You do need to make sure there is a readership for the idea you select.
At the beginning of this post, I encouraged you to spend your downtime daydreaming about the next thing you might write. Then, I proceeded to give you a bunch of tips to make that daydreaming way less fun and way more work. I apologize—that’s very Grinch-like of me!
In all seriousness, finding a way to harness your daydreaming into a productive brainstorming session will give you a leg up in the writing process. After all, choosing what to write about is the most important thing you’ll do as a writer.
How do you feel about getting feedback on your work? Tell me in a comment below.
About the Author
C.K. Bush is a nonfiction editor and writer. She lives in New York City.