How to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write

Question mark - Courtesy Horia Varlan | flickr

Courtesy Horia Varlan | flickr

By guest blogger Sue Mitchell

Oh, the irony! I suggested to Milli that I write a post about not letting questions and uncertainty stop you from writing, and here I am staring at the blank electronic page, stymied by the question, “How should I start?”

I know I’m supposed to grab your attention right away, but how? Totally stuck on that. In fact, I’ve been wandering around asking myself that question for a couple of days now, ever since I agreed to guest post on Unleash Your Writing! and suggested this topic. What was I thinking?

Take note: I am writing. Even though I still don’t know the answer about how to start.

And, as it turns out, starting with a real-life example like this makes a lot of sense. Good thing I went ahead and started!

In my work with creative folks, I’ve identified six essential components of a productive creative practice. One of them is Starting. But how can you get started in your writing if you still have questions like:

What should be my hook?
What examples should I include?
How will the conflict in this story be resolved?
Should I even be writing this, or is my other idea better?
What’s the word I’m looking for here?

At the risk of sounding inane, the answer is that you can start by starting. You don’t need to let unanswered questions stop you from working on your draft. Here’s why:

Often, you’ll discover the answer in the process of writing, as I did here today.

There’s something about having a place to land, rather than existing only in your mind, that makes ideas and answers flow more easily.

Your subconscious will continue to work out the answer while you’re doing other things.

In fact, your brain really doesn’t like to be observed while it’s working. It prefers for your attention to go elsewhere while it hunts around for what you’re after. Letting go of finding the answer is a great way to allow the answer to be revealed.

I call these questions that your subconscious is working on “seed questions,” and I joke that all they need to germinate is a little water (perhaps from the famously idea-generating shower) and openness to receiving the answer.

Writing is non-linear.

That means that you can skip around the parts you’re stuck on for now and get busy with the parts that feel less uncertain.

You can use placeholders.

When I was writing the draft of this post, I had trouble coming up with many examples of questions you might have while writing, even though I knew we all have them. So, in the list above, after writing “What should be my hook?” and “What examples should I include?” I simply wrote “[insert other examples here]” and continued on. Just leave yourself a little note and work it out later.

You could do something similar with entire passages or even chapters. Not sure how to explain something? Just put “[explain this somehow]” and keep going. Need a scene leading up to the turning point of your novel but not sure yet how you want it to flow? Insert “[add setup scene here]” and move along.

Maintaining momentum is critical to the creative process. Anything you can do to get started and keep going means your message will be shared with the world sooner rather than later.

What questions have stopped you from writing? Have you experienced an aha after letting go of trying to figure it out? What techniques have you had success with that allow you to keep going even when you’re not sure about some aspect of the writing? I’d love to hear your insights!

Sue Mitchell, creativity coach

Sue Mitchell

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Sue Mitchell is a veteran teacher and certified Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coach who specializes in supporting novice memoir writers. She believes everyone has a story worth telling and loves to simplify the process so that anyone who wants to can reap the benefits of lifewriting. Pick up her Creative Block Buster Checklist at www.YourMuseIsCalling.com/gift.


33 thoughts on “How to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write

  1. Charlotte Rains Dixon

    I think what stops me most often is this stupid feeling I should already know what I’m going to write–when most often that comes out in the actual writing. Which is why prompts can be helpful to write to, also, as they give you a starting point. Thanks for a great post.

    Reply
  2. Carole Jane Treggett

    Sue, what an outstanding post! I love when you say how we’ll often discover the answer in the process of actually writing rather than trying to figure it all out before we put pen to paper, hands to keyboard. I have found the immense value in making a commitment to show up regularly for my writing time, and just starting, whether or not I’m clear on what I’m doing.

    I especially appreciate how you share so openly from your own experience right as you were working on this, offering some concrete, realistic steps to try along the way.

    Reply
    1. Sue Mitchell

      Thanks, Carole! I used myself as an example because this is something I encounter *all the time*. But the points I mention in the post are what have helped me unleash my writing! 🙂

      Reply
  3. SandyRStuckless

    Great post! I definitely use placeholders as well as skip ahead to parts I already have an idea for. Freewriting helps me a lot too. I’ll just write anything, it’s mostly crap that’ll never end up in the story, but I look at like mining away the top layer of dirt to get at the gold underneath.

    Reply
    1. Sue Mitchell

      Love this: “mining away the top layer of dirt to get to the gold underneath.” Yes! That’s why just starting and keeping moving is so important. If you stand there on the surface expecting the gold to come to you, you’ll be waiting a very long time. But if you start tossing dirt around, eventually you strike gold!

      Reply
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  5. Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce

    Great and valuable info you’ve shared here Sue! I’m definitely a proponent of ‘just starting’ When I’ve got blank page syndrome I basically just start freewriting on my topic and about the fact that I don’t know what to write. Sometimes it takes a few paragraphs, but I almost always come up with a beginning.

    The other thing that works well is just starting in the middle with something I know I want to say – once I get flowing, the beginning sometimes appears. I guess that’s the same idea as ‘placeholders’ Thanks for all the good ideas!

    Reply
    1. Sue Mitchell

      Hi, Sarah. I love the way you describe the non-linear nature of writing. Who says you have to begin at the beginning? Ideas like that can really stop someone before they even start!

      Reply
  6. Patrick Ross

    “Your subconscious will continue to work out the answer while you’re doing other things.” That’s my secret! Well, not so much, I blog about it a fair amount. Let me say it’s my little cheat, because I feel guilty at times, like I’m not the one actually writing it. I just take dictation from my subconscious. But yes, I rarely do what you pulled off — sit down without an idea and start, kudos by the way — but instead sit down after my subconscious has already begun on its own. I read recently that Hemingway always stopped writing when he knew where he was going with the next section, so he wouldn’t have to face that uncertainty the next day.

    Reply

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