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

Thoughtful-creative-moved-22614-lSo there you are.  You've cleared your schedule and made time to write.  The kids are farmed out, the dog is asleep, your partner is happily watching something stupid on TV.  You open a file, place your hands on your keyboard, and ….. nothing happens.

You don't know what to write.  And when you don't know what to write, writing doesn't happen.

This can occur whether you are starting something new, or in the middle of a writing project.  And no matter when it happens, it can stop you cold.  Maybe you're trying to parse out the plot of your novel, or maybe you're partway through and you thought you knew where you were going but suddenly you don't.

One of the single best pieces of advice I can give you, writer to writer, is this: always know where you are going next.  (My daughter-in-law drove up to Bainbridge Island last weekend to hear one of her favorite authors, Annie Barrows of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society fame speak, and guess what?  That's the exact same advice she gave.)  I'm experiencing this first hand as I get up and work on my new WIP every morning.  The days I know where I'm going next, my fingers fly.  The days where I'm not sure, I meander.  And on those meandering days I get nothing done.

But what if you find yourself at the page and you don't have a freaking clue what to write?  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Write about your project.  Don't worry about writing within the project, write around it.  I always keep a spiral handy for notes and "writing about" sessions.  These help me clarify where I am and can get me back to the project at hand.  I thought everyone did this, so much so that I'd never bothered to mention it–but then we had a long discussion about it in the writing group I lead and to most, it was a novel idea.  Go figure.  Anyway, for me, inspiration always comes through the writing itself.

2.  Use a prompt.  Yeah, I know.  But they work.  There are tons here and a million other places on the web.  The thing to remember about using prompts successfully is to not make yourself hew to them religiously.  By this I mean, use them as a starting point.  Doesn't matter if the prompt is about a cat and you write about dogs.  The idea is to get you getting words on the page.

3.  Fill out a character dossier.  This is another thing I thought everyone did.  Turns out, not so.  I have standard character forms I've developed from a variety of sources over the years–and I invariably find myself figuring things out as I write fill them in.  (If you need a template for that, just email me and I'll send you mine.)

4.  Remember, nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is valuable just to plunge in.  Put your character somewhere and start writing.  It may not turn into anything at all, but then again, it might.  And even if you don't use it this time around, maybe it will work itself into your next WIP.  Who knows? The muse works in mysterious ways–but she's happiest when you meet her partway.

5.  Also remember that maybe something is wrong.  If you are in the middle of a project and you don't know what to right, consider that something isn't working.  Maybe you've conceived the scene wrong, or it belongs in a different place.  Maybe it needs to be in a different location or with a different set of characters.  In order not to get stuck here, either move on to a different scene, or write something else–play around with a short story or an essay, for instance.

6.  Make a list of what you know and don't know.  Approach this like free writing and set a timer, then write down every thing you can think of that you don't know.  Ask yourself questions.  Make odd connections.  See what comes out on the page.  You know more than you think, you just need to unlock it from within.

7.  Change up your routine.  I rarely listen to music while writing, but at the moment I'm listening to a soundtrack that purports to zap you into the right brain and allow the words to flow.  It seems to be working! (Though I must admit I found the bird calls on it a bit distracting at first.) I've written recently about how working outside every morning has improved my writing.  So try something different–it may give you inspiration, and that's really what we're talking about here.

8.  Write a description.  Some people love it, some people hate it, but writing it is good practice.  Maybe you'll actually use it somewhere–or maybe it will spark the words you're looking for.

9.  Walk away.  If all else fails, go do something else.  Take a walk, mow the lawn, pull weeds, something.  It amazes me how often I don't know what to write next, get up from my chair, and find myself running back to the computer because everything has clicked into place.

10.  Keep a writer's journal.  Carry a journal around with you and take notes.  I don't do this as often as I should but when I do, it makes me happy.  Write about the woman with magenta hair and tattoos sitting next to you at the coffee shop, make notes on dialogue.  You can do this quickly, in phrases and lists, or elaborately, whatever your pleasure.  Then when you're sitting back at your desk, despairing because you don't know what to write, flip through it for inspiration.

So….what do you do when you don't know what to write?  Please share in the comments.

Photo by corpitho.

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10 Comments on "What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write"

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J.D.
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J.D.
07/09/2015 05:24
I like the advice of Michael Connelly on writer’s block for a WIP. He said back up 3 or4 pages and start reading. When you get to the end, usually you just keep going. There is no question we are all wired differently. When Stephen King walks, words fall to the sidewalk in his wake. He tried to retire and probably wrote more words that year than most of us. And Alice Munro. I have a few short stories but not enough to publish a collection. Alice has written 14 collections. She was 37 when her first was published. Her… Read more »
Dyoung
Guest
07/09/2015 07:16

I like this. What I’ve been doing with my current WIP, is using notes on my outline cards as writing prompts. I study my character dossier pages. I research online the geographical setting of my story.

These things help. At least with a current project.

If you’re between projects- I can see the stuck days could be worse.

Also- lists like these- I add to my writing journal:) easy reference when creativity gets stuck!

Dyoung
Guest
07/09/2015 07:18

Awesome perspective, JD! I often think I’m too late trying to do this. Thanks for the important reminders that writing is more than putting words on pages.

J.D.
Guest
J.D.
07/09/2015 09:07

Yeah, this is a great list from Charlotte. Keeping a journal with these ideas sounds like an excellent practice as well. I should–I don’t. Good luck with your WIP. Hammer that baby out so we can all read it.

Charlotte Dixon
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07/09/2015 10:01

The cards are a a great idea, Dona.  And I am thrilled that your WIP seems to be going so well.  Woot woot!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/09/2015 10:04

I hadn't read that quote from Alice Munro and I can't really see how a writer ever manages to retire.  In one way or another, I see myself always writing something.  And I do go back and read what I've written before sometimes.  Often, actually.  Though there is a whole school of writing thought that one should not do that.  Of course, there are lots of schools of writing thought commanding various things one should and should not do.  

J.D.
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J.D.
07/09/2015 10:59

I think she was 82 at the time. I can imagine she might’ve been painted into a box. She’s like a character actor trapped by public perception. Maybe she tired of that narrow role she was asked to play. I read that much of her work is available online for free, though in first edition or draft or something like that. I have great respect for her but I can’t remember the last piece of her work I read. I know I’ve read one, but I’ll be damned if i remember what it was.

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/09/2015 14:22

I’ve read a couple of her stories, but its been ages for me, too. The one I remember was pretty bleak, enough so that I didn’t rush to read more, though I did appreciate the craft. And I’m more of a novel girl anyway.

Zan Marie
Guest
07/10/2015 05:22

I vote for 1, 3, 4, 9, and 10. 😉 Yep, I’ll use anything I can grab to make the juices flow.

Note to self: Remember this when I get back to Book 2 after a loooong spate of polishing, editing, etc.

Thanks for the reminder, Charlotte!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/10/2015 07:23

Thanks for commenting, Zan Marie.  How's your rewrite going?

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