How to pick a subject to write about

A guide for identifying the ideal topic for opinion pieces

So you want to write an article? This is great news! Now you'll need to identify a subject.

This is a guide to helping writers find a suitable topic.

Let's start with what we are looking for.

An opinion piece is usually a theory. It's an argument you are trying to convince the reader of.

The Financial Times sportswriter Simon Kuper puts it thus:

“Only one idea per article. I once offered an editor an 800-word article. I told him various brilliant points I wanted to make. He pretended to listen patiently, and then said: ‘Most readers can remember only one idea from an article’ Just make one good point, he said, and buttress it with facts and anecdotes. If an hour later the reader can remember your point, that’s a triumph. Since then I have tried to make only one point per article.”

Examples:

Why France may fail at hosting the 2024 Olympics

The Age of Brain-Computer Interfaces Is on the Horizon

How I came to loathe my car

These articles all have a single concept at the heart of them.

How to find your theory

The perfect opinion piece hits three criteria:

1. Tightly defined

2. Controversial

3. Memorable

Let's run through these concepts.

1. You need to find your big idea. As Kuper puts it above, you need your 'one idea per article'. A great thesis is bold enough and eye-catching. Yet doable in a single piece: normally 800 words (we can go much longer, but this is the typical length of an opinion piece).

As a rule, pitches fail not because they are too bold, but because they are too vague and not doable in 800 words. For example: “How to do Search Engine Optimisation”. Is that doable in 800 words? No. Of course not. It's massive.

The method to find your big idea is simple. Zoom in! Narrow your subject. Find the most interesting point you want to make, and stick to that. Ditch the rest.

For example:

No: How to do Search Engine Optimisation

Yes: How to understand the Ahrefs Health Score for SEO

800 words on the Ahrefs methodology is easily doable. It's a terrific topic.

Or

No: How to keep your workers happy

Yes: How virtual bonus payments mimic share options without the paperwork

Zoom in, narrow down. If the angle feels too flabby, keep zooming in.

2. Your article neds to challenge the reader. Some of the readers need to disagree, or they won't bother reading it. We get pitches such as, “Why you need the right digital tools.” Are there, we wonder, any entrepreneurs who are convinced they need the wrong tools? Obvs not.

A strong thesis will hit a wall of resistance, and then blow it away.

Here's Paul Graham, the legendary investor and co-founder of Y Combinator. Now this is a thesis! Which he goes on to justify. This is why Graham has 1.5 million followers on Twitter.

Or look at Bolt founder Ryan Breslow who gained 100k Twitter followers in four months with cracking threads such as: “Why we launched the 4 day work week experiment” and “12 mindset rules to build a $4B company”. His stuff is wild and counter-intuitive.

The best entrepreneurs are contrarian. I wrote a piece on Big Data for The Times and spoke to Clive Humby, inventor of the Tesco club card. He said, “Big Data is mostly a waste of time.” The opposite of what everyone else was saying. His quotes led the story.

If your angle is so vanilla that no one disagrees with it, no one will read it. Spice it up! And hey, this is the internet. The bar for outrage is pretty high.

3. Your article should be memorable. There are two ways to achieve this: be useful, or be entertaining.

Educational articles are useful. For example, Business Age ran, “Launching in the pandemic – seven crucial lessons I’ve learnt” and it's an honest, personal take by a young entrepreneur keen to help other entrepreneurs improve the way they work. Business Age is a place for entrepreneurs to educate each other. We love any and all articles which do this. “How to...” is the single most reliable way to generate a strong pitch.

A piece can also be memorable purely by being entertaining. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a long-read feature called “The Formula: What if you built a machine to predict hit movies?” - the title is terrific.

I'll be honest. Most business pieces are entertainment pieces. Remember all those exposes of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos blood testing scandal? Pure entertainment. Features on Elon Musk and Space X? Entertainment. Very few us will actually work with Musk or use SpaceX equipment. But reading about Musk is a joy.

Ready? Here's a final test. After you've met the three criteria above, can you sum up your angle in a single sentence. This sentence must so clear that a writer could be commissioned with it alone.

Yep?

Now you are ready to pitch: editor@businessage.com

NB: We provide feedback on pitches, when we think a pitch is almost there and will work after a bit of refining