The Importance of Writing Topics & Writing about What You Know

by Kerry Kerr McAvoy

When coaching a new writer, one of the first things I want to hear is their marketing plan, which includes their five key writing topics. Whether they know this, these subjects will be their brand or author theme.

Most look puzzled.

“What do you mean?” they ask.

“What five general topics will be your focus?”

Most list a range of unrelated ideas. They want to write about toxic narcissism, tiny gardens, and short-term investments. They hesitate to limit their writing to five closely related subjects for fear of stifling creativity.

I understand. I made the same error when I first began my writing career.

A Painful Lesson

For years I dreamed of writing but lacked inspiration. One time, I sat down and try. After a few paragraphs, the story lost steam without a plot or conflict.

I had no idea what I was doing. But, as a self-conscious person, it never occurred to look for help. And this was in the early 2000s when there was limited writing support.

So, when I awoke with an outline one morning. I took it seriously. I devised a strategy and spent the next year writing two to three afternoons a week. The final project was a small religious devotional about 35,000 words long. Not a grand accomplishment, but it felt significant to me.

But I’d made a rookie error. I wrote a nonfiction book in an area I lacked expertise. So how was I going to sell it?

I didn’t know I should write about what I know

A large local writer’s association advertised its yearly conference. At the encouragement of my late husband, I went. I called him near tears at the end of the first day, looking for the support to call it quits and come home.

This event was a large Christian writers’ conference. All the large religious publishing houses were in attendance with their scouting agents, who made it their mission to dissuade us of our illusions.

I first learned most traditionally published authors only make a humble earning. It was rare to get rich writing. The attending agents then emphasized the importance of writing about what we know. We needed to have expertise in our topic.

Despite my insecurities as a new writer, I was there to pitch my manuscript. So, I sat down with several agents.

Each one was polite, but not interested. Most never opened my manuscript as we spoke.

One listened to my elevator speech and then asked why I wasn’t writing about psychology. It impressed him to hear I had a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and thriving practice, so why I wasn’t writing about the topic? He then handed my manuscript back and said he’d more interested if I returned next year with a book proposal about the intersection of depression and faith.

My Struggle With My Area of Expertise

I walked away discouraged and angry, with no desire to write that book. I was burning out as a psychologist. Though my thriving counseling practice had a long waiting list, the work drained me. I had made a poor career choice.

My manuscript explored issues of religious faith, though I had no theological background. Why would anyone care what a psychologist had to say about God?

Maybe the agents had it wrong. So, I left the conference and stubbornly hired an editor who I hoped would vindicate me. He was an accomplished writer and educator — someone who knew what it took to be a successful writer.

A few weeks later, I received a mailed copy of his editorial summary. I’ll never forget his review. He wrote, “You have no more right than any Tom, Dick, or Sally to write this book.”

I cried — no, more like wailed for two days. I stormed around the house, humiliated and pissed.

Though I don’t condone his delivery method, he was right.

I re-wrote sixty percent of that book, this time weaving psychological insights into the material. My editor took another look and gave me a big thumbs up.

Author Branding Happens With or Without Intentional Input

The minute we decide to write, we begin to brand ourselves and to build an author platform. It is an inescapable process. Will we intentionally nurture its growth or let it happen chaotically and without direction?

And are we qualified to write this subject, especially if our material is nonfiction? We must establish we are an expert.

If we are writing fiction, what’s our genre? Early on, we need to identify our writing category and, mostly, stick to it. We will confuse our readers if we pursue a wide range of topics. A romance writer’s fan base will not be interested in her foray into a science fiction space opera.

Yet, if our niche is too narrow, we may have trouble finding interest. A romance writer of steamy extraterrestrial-werewolf love stories that take place in an underwater setting may struggle to find those who love that kind of book.

Like it or not, writers must think like an entrepreneur.

What are your themes?

After a few years off, I resumed writing in late 2019. This time I let my readers know what to expect. My essays are about growing healthy relationships and being our best selves. I use Relationships, Love, Self, Sexuality, and Mental Health tags. My readers won’t be surprised when I publish fiction in the same vein.

So, how can new writers narrow their range of interests down to three to five topics? Create a list of your past work or current ideas. What are the common themes? Are they similar? If not, select the ones that are. These can act as a guide for your future writing.

Knowing your theme will enable you to create a consistent brand as a writer — a great way to start a solid marketing plan.

So, tell me, what are your key topics?

This Week’s Worksheet:

How to Find Your Personal Theme (available to all Patreon sponsors)

Hey! How to Publish Your Book Podcast is offering free access to our writers’ Discord community until the end of February. Come and join our thriving group and explore branding, platform building, tips on writing, and publishing.

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