Maybe the students in the Writing for Children class can confirm this for me, but I’ve got a hunch that this is the #1 concern for anyone asked to write nonfiction the first time. And if someone said to me, “Chris, write me some nonfiction,” I might well have the same reaction.

The thing is, none of us really thinks about “writing nonfiction.” We think about writing about X, or Y, or Z, and so the trick is to figure out what X, Y, and Z are for each of us. And while it is possible to just sit down and all at once come up with half an alphabet’s worth of potential topics, it’s neither necessary nor (probably) the best way to go about it.

Instead, keep a notepad handy at all times, and keep your eyes and ears and mind open. You’Â’ll read or hear or see things that jolt you — amuse you, surprise you, fire up your curiosity — more than most other things. Jot down a note or two and file them away.

A quick review of my own file of as-yet-untapped ideas reminds me of the origins of several of them:

  • New York Times obituaries
  • NPR
  • Research for other projects
  • A BusinessWeek article
  • Friends’Â’ suggestions
  • Daydreaming during a performance at the Dougherty Arts Center

One benefit to this approach is that, if you ever find yourself wondering what to write about next, you’Â’ll have multiple topics to explore, and each of them will have already passed a crucial test: They’ve grabbed you at least long enough for you to write something down about them.

Now, out of those topics on your list, you just have to pick one you think will greatly interest you for a long time. Sounds simple enough, but worth a closer look:

Greatly: You’Â’ll need to learn far more about the topic than you’Â’ll be able to use in your manuscript, and your pursuit of facts and details will send you off on tangents you won’Â’t even be able to imagine at the outset.

Interest: The topic can’Â’t just be something you think will sell. It has to grab you before it will grab anyone else, and there has to be something about the topic that compels you to keep going. (An example of one topic that I considered but let go: Jim Henson. Much as I love the Muppets, nothing that I learned about his life story compelled me to take a crack at telling it myself.)

Long: Researching may take months or years. Ditto for the writing, the selling, and the revising, not to mention the wait for publication. If you can’t picture yourself still loving a topic a half-decade from now, you might want to keep looking.