By Travis Willmore
With open-ended assignments, coming up with a topic is only the first of several goals the writer wants to meet. You also need to decide what main point to communicate to your audience. Even if you’re just telling a story, there’s something central you want people to get out of it. It’s often easier to write something (a paper, a personal statement, anything…) when you start with this central theme already in mind. But if you don’t, what then?
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. Start by putting down on paper (or monitor) every thought that comes into your head on anything remotely related to your topic. Make lists, freewrite, yell into a tape recorder—use any method that appeals to you. Then, sift through all this disparate information to see if something emerges as a central theme—an underlying thread that connects these different aspects of the subject.
Maybe there will be more than one common thread. Then you have a choice. Choice is swell. Choose the theme that seems most relevant to the open-ended question you’re attempting to answer. Also, ask yourself which of these central elements would allow you to use the most of your accumulated writing to support it. The more of your already-created output you can clean up and use in your actual paper, the closer you are to being done.
So…if you have no idea what central point you want to make when you decide on your topic, no need to freak out. Try writing your way toward it. It’s just as valid to use this creative sequence to arrive at your final draft as it is to start with a point and work forward from there. When people see a well-crafted paper, they can’t tell in what order its components were assembled, only that it hangs together beautifully.