How to pick a subject to write about

A guide for identifying the ideal topic for opinion pieces
By
Charles Orton-Jones
Ink well and paper for a writer

So you want to write an article? This is great news! Now you'll need to identify a subject. This our guide to helping writers find a suitable topic.

Move from topic to angle

Many pitches we get aren't really pitches. They are just vast subject areas.

For example.

"We want to write about SEO". That's a topic. Huge. Too big for an article. What you need an angle. A thesis. Something you are trying to convince the reader of.

"We want to write about why the concept of Domain Authority is misunderstood." Bang. Now that's an angle. Narrow. Tightly defined.

Another real life example

"Can I write about fintech".

"Yes, what is your thesis?

"My what?"

"Your thesis. Argument. What are you trying to convince the reader of?"

"Oh, we'll come back to you."

Ideally your angle should be provocative and challenge the reader to change their mind about a subject. Do not, and we repeat do not, simply state the obvious.

"Can we write about how treating your employees well is important?" Well, no, because no one disagrees.

If no one disagrees you do not have an opinion piece.

"How about how we pay bonuses to staff who pass qualifications?" Okay, now that is unusual and interesting - it'll work.

Sharing expertise okay. You are teaching the reader something. This can be as small as: "6 small things we do to generate five-star reviews on Trustpilot". The tighter the focus the better.

Model yourself on Adrian Chiles

How to find a great angle? Here is my (perhaps unexpected) tip. Browse the articles by Adrian Chiles on the Guardian website.

His titles are phenomenal.

"Stuck in a post office queue, all I could think about was how much I hate self-checkouts"

"I recently saw something in a petrol station toilet southbound on the M1 that I can never unsee"

"My fellow Midlanders have decided I am a traitor and should be dunked in Birmingham’s filthiest canal"

One journalist marvelled of Chiles, "It's his world, and we're just living in it." Chiles is original. He zeroes in on a quirk and expands it into an article. As an exercise, look at his articles and imagine how tedious they could be in the wrong hands. "The challenges of consumer ePos self services in the omnichannel experience" is how most business writers would express his post office angst. Chiles gives the theme a wild and personal theme.

His titles are ultra specific. And ultra popular.

Look at Chiles, or Jeremy Clarkson, or Caitlin Moran, or Dolly Alderton, or whoever your favourite writer is, and look at their titles. Learn from them.

Say the reverse of everyone else

Great writers often say the total reverse of conventional thinking. They find a truth others have missed.

Here's Paul Graham, the legendary investor and co-founder of Y Combinator. Now this is a thesis! Which he goes on to justify. Original views like these are 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: “12 mindset rules to build a $4B company” and "Be okay being wrong". His stuff is wild and counter-intuitive.

Listicles also work

Great formats for articles: Numbered articles work well. "7 things I learned launching in a pandemic". Speculative thinking can be interesting. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a long-read feature called “The Formula: What if you built a machine to predict hit movies?” - the title alone is terrific. "How I did X or Y" are almost always strong.

Look a detail

Just remember, the secret is to narrow your angle until you have a tight focus.

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.”

At Business Age we are open to any and all ideas. If in doubt, be radical.

When you are ready to pitch email us at: editor@businessage.com

Written by
Charles Orton-Jones
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