I don’t have to tell you that topic-based writing is a very popular idea in the world of technical communication. And with good reason: it can help make writing, managing, and assembling documentation a lot easier.
But you can apply topic-based writing to work outside of our profession.
As you may or may not know, I do quite a bit of freelance writing. And sometimes, I have an idea for a non-fiction writing project, but am only able to chip away at it bit by bit? That sometimes feels like it happens a bit too often.
I also find that with projects like that, I write in bits and pieces — a few sentences or paragraphs here and there — and never get anything finished. I have chunks of writing, but can’t really pull them together.
Yes, that’s where topic-based writing comes into play. It can help you pull together all those chunks of content that you’ve been pecking out into something tangible.
Have I got your attention? Then read on.
Topic-based writing: a quick refresher
If you’re familiar with the subject, or if you use topic-based writing in your daily work, feel skip this section.
With topic-based writing, a piece of documentation is broken down into its component parts. Each of those components is called, as you’ve guessed, a topic. A topic can be a lump of overview information, a procedure, and the like. It can be a single sentence, one or more paragraphs, or longer.
Each topic stands on its own. It’s not related to, or reliant upon, any of the topics that come before or after it. You can stitch topics together in a number of very interesting and unique ways.
As far as documentation goes, you can have a store of topics. Then, you can combine them to create various types of manuals.
Applying this to other writing
That’s all well and good for technical writing. But how can you apply this concept to other forms of non-fiction writing? Actually, that’s fairly easy.
Take all of those bits and pieces that you’ve been writing — whether they’re in text files, word processor documents, or in a paper notebook. Treat those bits and pieces as topics. Then combine them into one large document. Of course, you’ll want to put them into a logical order …
Chances are, you’ll have at least an article’s worth of content. The problem you’ll encounter is that after you’ve stitched all of those topics together, the final product will seem very disjointed. That’s one weakness of topic-based writing. However, that’s a problem that’s easy to get around. Just add segues and linking material wherever it’s needed.
A real-world example
No, this isn’t all theory. I’ve used topic-based writing with other forms of non-fiction. How?
A while back, I had a tough week or so that took its toll on my writing. In fact, there was a day that I officially declared a write off. Definitely not a happy thing when you’re staring down the barrels of several deadlines.
One article in particular was rather slow in coming. It was an assignment from a gadget magazine: I had to write a 1,200 word article on 10 recommended gadgets for Christmas. One hundred words per gadget, plus recommendations and introductory and concluding material. That’s not a lot of space, but it wasn’t a problem. I’ve done articles like that before.
But those 100 words … They didn’t seem to want to come the way they usually do. And to keep each description in the 100 word limit, I decided not to fool around in word processor with word counts.
I wrote each description in a text editor, and saved those descriptions in individual text files. Doing that made it easier to reach and stay within the word count for each gadget.
Once everything was written, I pulled the files together and pasted them into a word processor. I was able to do this quickly and easily because there was no linking material between each description. All I needed to do was add a little information to beginning and to the end.
Since then, I’ve done that a few more times. And, guess what? Topic-based writing not only saved my bacon, it made getting the work done a lot easier.
In fact, one of the ebooks I’m working on (titled Project A) is being written using the topic-based technique. Each chapter is a topic. That gives me a lot of flexibility in arranging and re-arranging the order of chapters. I don’t have to worry about re-writing connecting material. Once I’ve found the optimal mix, I can add that material and then publish.
Taking this a step or two further
By tackling one or more writing projects in this way, you’re opening the door to creating a library of topics. You can use what’s in that library to quickly assemble articles, or target existing ideas (with a few changes) to multiple markets.
The biggest problem you’ll face is that you’ll have a hard time keeping track of all of your topics once your library begins to grow.
Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.