What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write.

Do you ever fail to start simply because you don’t know what to write about? This problem is one of the biggest culprits for why many writers get stuck. I’ve experienced how difficult this can be, but I’ve also found some techniques that help me to get past this point. I’m going to share one of those strategies in this post, but first, let’s ponder why we often freeze while staring at that blinking cursor in the first place.

Why we get stuck writing

The problem behind writers getting stuck is not that they lack enough to say. Usually, the problem is the reverse. (C’mon, give yourself some credit!) We have too much to say. We have so much to say that we don’t know how to access the information that fills our heads. We don’t know how to take that information and put it onto the page. Our minds are stymied by the task of sorting and delivering the information buried deep in our brains. We seize up. We stare at a blank screen and write nothing. I’ve heard of writers doing this for an entire day.

How to generate words easily

The solution is lies in simplifying our approach. Here is my suggestion. Write about something very particular in the the greatest detail possible. Instead of writing about a broad topic in general terms, we need to pick a small subtopic that relates to or falls beneath that broad topic. This is counterintuitive. We tend to think that a big topic will be easier to write about. On the contrary, trying to distill something large into writing is quite difficult. Another problem is the fact that even if we succeed in writing about that big topic, we’ll most likely have nothing unique or incisive to say—our writing will be filled with cliches and we’ll barely scratch the surface. I am continually reminding my students about this when they pick topics. They are amazed when they discover that writing about something specific (e.g., a song) is easier than writing about something broad (e.g., an entire musical genre).

We need to think of a specific sub-topic or detail and write about that. Get into the nitty-gritty of something that interests you. Don’t write an introduction. Don’t try to think of the ideal title or that perfect first line. Just take a breath and dive deep into the topic the same way you would jump into a pool. Write the first idea that comes to mind and go crazy with that idea. If you get stuck, pick a related idea and go crazy with that one. Your sentences will probably sound like garbage. If you’re writing now, who cares? It might take a few lines to warm up, but before long you will be writing paragraphs. Ironically, the challenge frequently becomes finding a way to stop. Why does this happen? It’s because we tend to know more than we realize. We usually have more facts, opinions, and feelings than we remember. Choosing a specific sub-topic or angle opens up all of our knowledge and feelings, and we’re able to write freely. This usually doesn’t happen when we write broadly.

Unclog your brain for more content

Let me share an example to illustrate this. Suppose you have a favorite TV series. Suppose I ask you to explain the the show. That’s all I ask you: “Explain this show.” Your brain will most likely panic, because I’ve given you almost nothing to start with. I’ve posited so broad a question that your mind doesn’t know how to go about answering it. It’s not that you lack information about your favorite show—you have loads of information. The problem is that I’ve given you no filter to screen out the unnecessary information in your head. There’s a pipe in your brain that’s getting clogged. If, on the other hand, I ask you to explain—let’s say—the primary conflict in the show, everything changes. Now I’ve given your brain a filter. Now you can unclog the pipe and sift out all the information except those details that relate to my question. Within seconds, you’ll be describing the key characters and the ongoing problem that they face in your favorite show. 

To use one of my favorite shows as an example: Breaking Bad is about the struggle a man faces when he finds that he has terminal cancer, but doesn’t know how to pay for his treatment or provide for his family when he’s dead; he turns to making illegal drugs and hazards his life and relationships as a result. 

Writing that summary of the conflict in Breaking Bad was incredibly easy, and I could go on writing about that element at length without a problem. This is because—contrary to what instinct tells us—it’s easier to write about something when we are given limitations. 

Zoom in for a better view

Here’s another example. This November, I worked on the first draft of a sci-fi novel for National Novel Writing Month. Every day, I tried to write 1667 words. If you haven't tried it, writing 1667 words of fiction every day is hard. (I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be.) One of the biggest challenges is simply thinking of something to write about. I came to a halt almost every morning as I tried to continue the draft. The difficulty lay in not knowing where to start (or having started, not knowing where to go next). Every time I had a moment of hesitation, I would strive to push past it as quickly as possible. I would pick something specific and go deep. At one point, I was writing about a character traveling through space to a strange planet. I had not decided what would happen when he arrived. I was going to get stuck, but I needed to keep writing. So I decided to go in depth about what I’d already been writing about: the spaceship. (This is boring to anyone who's not a fan of science fiction, I know, but the principle would work for any kind of writing.) I began to elaborate on the exterior of the ship: its size, shape, color, and material. Then I shifted to the interior: the controls, the seat, and how the pilot was positioned inside the vessel. I described how the spaceship moved. I compared it to other space vessels. Eventually, I had written enough to fill up the time I’d set aside for writing that day. In the end, I may not use all of those details about the spaceship. I may move those details to a different place in the book. Whatever I decide to do with what I wrote, the key thing is that I kept writing. I added words that I can use later and I didn’t allow myself to stop. And this is what leads to success—just start writing and keep writing.

Get busy writing

So, a key tactic for moving past the uncertainty of what to write about is to write about something specific. It’s a paradox. Unclog the pipe in your brain. Filter out the unnecessary by focusing on something small. Get into the nitty-gritty of that concept, and you will surprise yourself with the length at which you can write. 

For corollary technique, try freewriting to get related information out of your brain and onto the page. It’s my favorite tool for pushing past writing inertia.  (See my post on freewriting.