Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Write
To determine whether a given topic is worth writing about, try asking yourself the following:
I still distinctly recall the punchline of my high school graduation’s keynote speech. To the sea of smiling eighteen-year-olds, wondering what would become of the rest of their lives, my 12th grade history teacher provided a simple but sage strategy for job selection.
When considering a particular career path, he said, one should ask themselves the following questions: Do I enjoy this? Am I good at it? Is it important? Whatever you choose should elicit a definitive “yes” to all three.
While this piece of advice has served me well in career-related matters, I’ve found it to be a useful heuristic for other types of decisions as well. In choosing where to volunteer, which field of study to pursue, or which papers to publish, I’ve employed the three questions to help me prioritize certain pursuits and drop others entirely.
Nearly all time-consuming, public-facing endeavors should be able to pass the test: why dedicate significant time to something you genuinely dislike, or sink effort into something if you don’t think it’s important? Why foist the products of that effort onto others if you aren’t capable of quality work?
Writing a piece for publication is an activity that should be subject to a similar type of deliberation. However, a slight revision of the three questions is required. To determine whether a given topic is worth writing about, try asking yourself the following:
1. Is this a topic I’m excited to write about?
2. Am I qualified to be writing about this?
3. And for the last, no change is necessary: Is it important?
Question 3 may be a tough one to answer, as “important” can be broadly defined. Typically, I ask myself whether I think readers will find my envisioned piece useful, or if I think the contents will promote the well-being of the world (even if only in a minuscule way). This one’s your call — but at the very least, you should believe the subject is important and be aptly motivated to do it justice.
If a topic fails to check one of the three boxes, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should never write a piece about it, only that you shouldn’t write it right now.
Say you have an idea that passes all but question #2: you’re really enthusiastic about working on a particular article, the topic of which you think will interest many, but you aren’t expert enough to compose the piece you envision. Here, the checklist highlights a knowledge gap worth filling. Taking the time to learn deeply about the subject may well result in a quality piece of work.
Likewise, timing and situation can impact questions #1 and #3. For example, you may be more excited to write an article about a specific social trend after some relevant personal experience with it, or you may find a previously ideated topic to be elevated in importance in light of current events.
To increase the odds of successful idea recycling, it can be helpful to keep an unused topics log and review it with some regularity.
When employing these three questions with stringency, most writing topics won’t make the cut, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s great! Dropping mediocre ideas will leave you with more brainpower to dedicate to those with potential for greater impact.
The checklist will also help you identify addressable weaknesses, providing the impetus to become more expert on a subject, or to save the idea for use at a later, more appropriate time. Ultimately, this structured reflection should help you find greater enjoyment in writing — the process is much more pleasant when you feel confident that you’re writing something that is truly valuable, to both yourself and others.