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Finding Questions or Issues

So, your teacher has just asked you to write a 4- to 6-page essay, and you have no idea what to write about. Trust me; staring at the computer screen for another hour is not going to help. What you need are some ideas to get your brain started.

The beginning of good writing is observation, and observation can take many forms. What you are looking for as you observe are questions, or more precisely, issues. I like Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky’s definition of an issue: “An issue is a question that presents a fundamental tension within a topic that can be explored and debated” (From Inquiry to Academic Writing, [Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008], 4). And later they add, “Issue-based questions . . . need to be approached with a mind open to complex possibilities” (16). College writing, whether it be for your composition class or your biology class, tends to focus on discussing issues. It is not enough to find a topic you are interested in; you have to find an issue.

How do you find these questions that have multiple ways of looking at them? Well, you need to be aware of what is happening around you. Start by listening—to a radio talk program, commercials, your physics professor, or eavesdrop on that conversation in the cafeteria. And don’t forget to read—a newspaper, a magazine, any textbook (that’s right, do your other homework).

As you read and listen, look for the questions behind the statements. What are the authors you are reading and the speakers you are listening concerned about? What gets you and your fellow college students upset, happy, or motivated? What are you curious about? Have you wondered how something does work or might work? What issues are your professors in your other classes and in your writing class asking you to grapple with? What are they working on?

If your government professor starts talking about the current healthcare debate, ask yourself, what questions is she asking? What concerns does she seem to have about the direction of the debate? Is she concerned about the proposals in the bills? Is she concerned about the tone of the debate across the country? Why does she seem to be concerned?

Maybe your health teacher has a lecture about the spread of sexual transmitted diseases. As he talks, you might wonder how teenagers can better protect themselves from getting one. You may even wonder what has already been done and if it’s working.

As you read the latest issue of Car and Driver, you might wonder, how can they make those racecars more fuel efficient? What have the engineers already tried? Or even, is high-speed racing such a good idea when it releases so many pollutants into the air?

All of these are questions that can possibly be explored in an essay. The key idea here is that you are looking for an issue that can be researched and discussed.

In another blog post, I’ll discuss how brainstorming, freewriting, focused freewriting, and clustering can help you come up with even more issues and questions to deal with or can clarify your ideas on what you’ve found by observing. But you need to have a starting point, and observing through reading widely and listening broadly will help you find issues that are already out there waiting to be discussed. Happy hunting!

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