Choosing a Topic

    By: Jonathan Gennick on Aug 02, 2018


    By Jonathan Gennick | Edited by Kristin Fields, SELECT Editor

    What to write about? It’s a question I get fairly often, and it’s a question that any author – whether of books or blog posts – eventually struggles with. How does an author move from the desire or promise to write into having a topic that readers might be expected to care about?

    Examine Your Passions

    The best writing in technical non-fiction comes from passion for a topic, along with an evangelistic desire to share a message and make a difference by helping readers improve themselves through doing better, more efficient and more enjoyable work. Writing to make a difference is the best.

    The quintessential book born of passion that always comes to my mind is Steven Feuerstein’s book on Oracle PL/SQL Programming. I remember the first-edition of that book back in the mid-1990s, and it was clear from my first time reading it that the author – Steven – was motivated by a true love of the topic. Steven loved PL/SQL! He loved the language and wanted readers to love it, too. Steven wanted to elevate readers in their use of PL/SQL, and that goal was apparent in every paragraph he wrote.

    Springing from Steven’s love of PL/SQL were strong opinions on how to best use the language and its features. The most memorable parts – for me, at least – of Steven’s book were his opinions. Syntax can be had from a manual, but only Steven’s book would give me his insights into using the language and best applying its various features. I still remember clearly Steven’s strong opinion against implicit conversions. Agree or disagree, at least he had an opinion and the reasoning behind it to put out there. That’s the value to me of a good book. Give me an author with an opinion.

    What are you passionate about? When you go about your daily work, pay attention to those moments when you find yourself having strong feelings. What is the spark that sets off those feelings? Can you draw from or expand upon that spark to extrapolate into a book topic or a blog post, or perhaps an article for IOUG SELECT? (Editors are standing by! Check out the SELECT Contact Us page.)

    Draw from Your Daily Work

    Did I mention daily work? Your daily work is another fruitful area to mine for authoring topics. Interesting problems and their solutions can lead to blog posts that others experiencing the same problems will be grateful to discover in their moment of need.

    Blog posts provide the luxury of allowing you to be highly specific. One can write a post about any problem and solution without worrying too much about whether the same scenario is likely to be encountered by anyone else.

    When you can generalize somewhat and create insights applicable to a broader audience, then you have a topic that might convert into an article or even a book. My first-ever Oracle Magazine article was a result of stepping back to think in general terms about how I approached the act of writing a query in SQL.

    Pete Finnigan’s book on Oracle Incident Response and Forensics is an example of a book drawn from daily work. Pete specializes in issues surrounding database security and has been active in that space for as long as I’ve known him. What he presents in his book is undoubtedly drawn from his accumulation of day-to-day experience helping clients secure their databases and work through the aftermath of breaches and other security incidents.

    Ask Your Editor

    Asking your editor for topic ideas is my least favorite approach. I’m an editor in the ivory tower of my basement office who struggles to keep up with the big picture. I’d much rather hear ideas from someone in the field who knows the needs of other practitioners and is able to form a vision that will lift readers up and make a difference in their careers.

    That said, editors are good as sounding boards. We can provide a somewhat dispassionate view on ideas, and we usually have an idea of general topic areas in which to publish. For example, I know that I want to publish more around PeopleSoft and other acquisitions that Oracle has made over the years.

    Darl Kuhn’s Oracle RMAN Database Duplication topic is my favorite example of an idea that I as an editor would not have come up with on my own. It took Darl coming to me and saying that he gets asked for help on duplication all day long for me to realize there might be a small book in the topic. I would have been able to say in general terms that I wanted to publish more on database administration, but it took Darl’s combination of experience and vision to identify the topic of database duplication.

    Test for Relevance

    I once knew a person who was partners in a successful business. He liked one aspect of the business so much that he sold the rest of the business to his partner and kept just the one piece for himself. The partner succeeded, whereas my friend did not. Because passion isn’t enough. Business ideas need to be viable in the real world, and so do book and article ideas.

    When the investment is low, such as in writing a blog post, you can afford to write for the heart and to not care whether you get read. Or you might care, if you’re trying to build influence and reputation.

    Test your topic ideas against current trends. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

    • Are you writing on a technology that’s on the ascent?
    • Are more and more people flocking to work in or with the technology you are writing about?
    • In a shrinking topic area, is there still a viable and committed audience?
    • Are there active discussion forums?
    • Has the topic been over-published?
    • Are practitioners encountering problems and looking for help?
    • Do industry conferences bring in speakers on the topic?

    These are all questions you can ask yourself to help in deciding whether a topic has an audience that will benefit from the work you put into creating content. A good editor will bring a level of objectivity to help you think things through in a dispassionate manner.


    Choose your topic with intention. Then put a stake in the ground and start writing. Make your planned topic happen. Keep your audience in mind. Aim to make a difference by elevating their skills or knowledge. Write with the aim of helping and elevating others, counting those as the measure of your success.

    Released: August 2, 2018, 7:45 am | Updated: August 10, 2018, 7:36 am
    Keywords: IOUG Press Corner | IOUG Press | Writing Tips

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