You can tackle broad and complex topics by focusing on the little stories within, finding the right entry point, and writing outward from there.
Recently, I was invited to present a toast at an anniversary celebration. It was an honor, but also a challenge: how could I boil down the happy couple’s decades of life together into a minuscule four-to-six paragraphs?
The task of writing an effective toast reminded me of other writing challenges I deal with frequently, like how to give an engaging perspective on a massive topic with only minimal page-space to work with.
With personal toasts, journalistic articles, and all sorts of fiction, I’ve found these same principles apply. I hope you find them helpful.
Learn about the topic
For the anniversary toast, I reflected on shared memories and created a photo slideshow of the couple together at various points in life. For an article I recently wrote on climate change, I researched the mechanics of offsetting emissions to make an activity carbon-negative. For a section in my novel-in-progress that deals with coffee, I educated myself about exotic, expensive sources of beans as well as cheaper, mass-market supply chains.
Any of the above are huge topics that one could spend countless hours learning about and getting lost in. As a writer, instead of trying to gain comprehensive knowledge of any of it, choose the aspects that fascinate you the most and marinate in the subject matter for as long as seems reasonable. Pick up what broad trends and tiny details you can and use that background to inform your writing.
Identify the major themes you want to address
If you don’t plan on writing an encyclopedia, you’ll have to pick and choose what facets of a large topic you want to address in your work. Whether it’s a couple’s core values as parents or grassroots use of innovations to curb greenhouse emissions, make sure you know — in broad strokes — what grand topic you want to address, what angle on it will best serve the overall goals of your writing, and what themes will most likely resonate with your readers. The more clearly you can identify your key themes ahead of time, the easier your writing process will be.
Find your “in” through the little stories
I’ve found that, regardless of the format of writing, zooming in as much as possible can be an effective way to start. In writing on coffee in my novel, my “in” was the coffee Kopi Luwak, an uncommon and expensive variation that’s sourced with the help of Asian Palm Civets. And for climate change, my article looked at one type of cookstove deployed in parts of India that can drastically reduce harmful emissions.
Do any of the above on-ramps give a comprehensive view of the broader topics they represent? Not at all — but they ground my writing in intriguing and concrete examples that my readers can understand, picture, and relate to.
With each of the above writing challenges, once I had my “in,” I used that starting point to launch a deeper exploration. In my toast, I told several personal stories about the couple that spoke to the main themes I wanted my speech to address. In my climate change article, I elaborated on the mechanics and implementation of the cookstoves, referencing at least one story about how they helped a rural family navigate a difficult situation. And for my novel, I talked about the rarity of Kopi Luwak as well as the unique (and some would say gross) way that the Palm Civets harvest their choice beans.
Again, the idea here is not to be comprehensive but to flesh out the kernel of an idea used to access your bigger topic of choice.
Get back to the broader topic
The more I wrote in each of the above contexts, the more I tried to tie my specific examples back to my broader topics and use small details to provide bigger insights. The couple’s embrace of small adventures at home highlighted their support of larger ones around the world. The use of cookstoves shows how low-tech, smart, grassroots efforts can layer together to create notable change. And my novelistic tangent into the world of Kopi Luwak reveals important clues and traits not just about the coffee itself, but the characters that drink it.
Even as I broadened the topics in my writing, I didn’t push myself to tell readers everything they would ever want to know about each major subject. This sort of expanding focus did, however, give readers depth, context, and details to help them understand my central topics in new and (hopefully) more nuanced and memorable ways.
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The above is just one strategy for writing concisely on large and complex topics. Do you have your own strategies for starting small when writing about a big topic? Tell us in the comments below.
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