10 things to do when you don’t know what to write.

‘I don’t know how to start.’ How many times have I heard that? When I was working with my students on their written assessments they would often wail (or email) in frustration.

Or, ‘I don’t know where to start,’ they might say.

Or (if they had launched out and begun to work on the essay or dissertation, but ground to a halt) ‘I don’t’ know what to do’. Their writing wasn’t working for them.

I had a range of suggestions I would give them, subsequently brought together in a hand-out for a writing summer school. I am indebted to colleagues for many of these ideas. They were originally intended for academic writers, but they have been adjusted to be relevant to writers of all genres.

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1. WRITE 2000 WORDS. Write anything. One advantage of word processing is that you can discard any rubbish, even 2000 words of rubbish. But this tactic gets you writing. (Thank you, Professor Dennis Lawton, former director of the Institute of Education, in the University of London).

2. BRAINSTORM to gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts etc, as you can. Include material you are sure you will throw out.

3. FIND A FRESH METAPHOR OR ANALOGY for your main theme in order to open up a fresh set of ideas, using the word LIKE: for example, if you are writing about violence on TV you might develop the idea that it is like clowns fighting in a circus act (that is, we know that no one is really getting hurt).

4. TELL someone (even the cat) in three or four sentences what you are writing about. Then write it.

5. Write a 200 word (MAX) SUMMARY or description of your story, poem, book, blog … Try including why it’s important to you and why it should be important to anyone else.

6. DO A WIRMI if you can’t find the right word or you are getting lost in what you are writing. A WIRMI is when you look away from the text and keyboard and say (out loud if it helps) What I Really Mean Is … (Thanks Chris Watkins! See CARNELL, E., MACDONALD, J., MCCALLUM, B. & SCOTT, M. (2008) Passion and Politics: academics reflect on writing for publication, London, Institute of Education, University of London).

7. READ ALOUD – to the cat again if necessary – to see where you need to improve a draft. It is better if there is an audience who will respond, but not essential. I know of people who have read to their dog, their new-born baby, their teddy bear, a mirror, a tape recorder. They all helped!

8. USE A CRITICAL FRIEND. Show a draft to a friend and hear their responses and questions. It is probably not a good idea to give a raw first draft to comment on. Use your friend when you have got as far as you can and your writing might first benefit from a pause.

9. REMEMBER that just about everyone finds writing hard, including published and experienced writers. It usually involves head scratching, deleting, false starts, lightbulb moments, redrafting, polishing, checking … Who said ‘writing is rewriting’?

10. READ A LOT AND WRITE A LOT. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” ( KING, S. (2000) On Writing, London, Hodder & Stoughton.) p164

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This suggestion might also work for you: How to battle the blank page, defeat distraction and get started writing. It’s from from Kathryn Heyman, of the Faber Academy, and author of the delightful Captain Starlight’s Apprentice.

 Do you have any techniques to suggest. Please add them in the comment box.

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6 Responses to 10 things to do when you don’t know what to write.

  1. Eileen

    An excellent set of ideas. Thanks caroline.
    One to add – non-stop writing – I learned this on a course at City Lit called ‘Inklings’ run by Marian Lennon. A brilliant course by the way. You keep writing and never hesitate, your pen or pencil never stops – just keep on writing following a sentence starter like ‘I want to write about …’. If you can’t think of anything don’t stop writing but keep rewriting ‘I want to write about …’ until you think of something new to add. I find this really helpful.

  2. Caroline

    Thanks for the additional suggestion Eileen.
    Oh yes, that sounds simple, not difficult at all, but it does force one to just go on. Untiul one breaks through.

  3. Thank you! That came in the right moment

  4. Some good ideas. I thought I’d tried the one about keeping writing until something useful comes out, but I realise now that I haven’t. I hope I remember it the next time I’m sucking on the end of my pen and staring into space.

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