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

Writing blocks rarely hit me because I don’t know what to say. For me, they are usually derived from a mind swarming with ideas. So much so, that I can feel overwhelmed with questions like these:

  • Should I focus on idea A or B today?
  • Just because I’m interested in a topic doesn’t mean anyone else is, right?
  • Is my thinking on this matter completely delusional?
  • I can’t write about __________; people will think __________ about me. Won’t they?

Ah, the battles of insecurity a writer must fight. So how do we wage war against our own fears, those with the power to debilitate us if we aren’t careful?Writing Rules

For me, I’ve had to gulp, choosing to write afraid.

I love what Stephen King said on the matter. “The only requirement to be a writer is to remember every scar.”

The secret to great writing is daring to risk in order to reap greater rewards. 

  • When you aren’t sure whether idea A or B is better, choose one and decide to embrace your own decision.
  • Odds are, if you are interested in a topic, so are other people. If you doubt it, do a quick friend/family and social media poll to test the waters.
  • What sometimes feels delusional to us can feel like “outside the box” thinking to others. Research to see if you can substantiate your premise. Try to imagine how this might come across to someone foreign to the concept. Tell your readers you understand this may sound strange or that they might agree to disagree with you. And don’t forget to ask God what He wants you to say — He is the king of fresh ideas.
  • As Stephen King’s quote reminds us, the inner scars, the deep thoughts, and the vulnerable spaces in our lives are often the ones other people connect with the most. If we hold our tender areas captive, we can’t free someone else who needs permission to release their own fears.

I think most writers struggle with what to write when you don’t know what to write. But you can’t go wrong when your words originate from your soul. Don’t doubt yourself to the point of mental paralysis. Your unique take is as important as your unique voice in expressing your thoughts.

Dare to believe in what you have to say.
Dare to share your innermost thoughts. Dare to trust God with a message he wants you to offer.

What Are You Doing for OthersSo what if every person on the planet doesn’t share your perspective? Some of the greatest minds in history were scoffed at in the beginning. Do your due diligence, then dare to risk so you and your readers reap a greater reward.

What topics could you write afraid? What are you holding back that could help others?

Motivating an Unmotivated Writer

Writing Quote E.B. White I’m going through one of those seasons of life where I’m not feeling motivated. My mind could go in either one of two directions. I could wallow and give up — allowing myself to succumb to fatigue, discouragement, and fear due to circumstances beyond my control. Or I could remind myself that I am an author, and as such, absolutely everything is potential writing fodder. I’m choosing the latter.

Writing is Harder for a WriterTo maintain any productivity, my way of putting words on the page has changed over the past month. For instance, instead of scheduling hours at a time for writing, I’m snatching snippets and seconds. Scrivener is my friend, as I drop ideas, research links, and summaries of real-time happenings for anecdotal use into project files. Life has required I do things differently, but I refuse to let it stop me.

Writing the WorstI’m also offering myself an extra dose of patience and forgiveness. If I expend emotional energy on unreasonable expectations and unhealthy guilt, I will pay for it in wasted physical and mental energy. It’s taken me years to learn this about myself, but now that I know it, I can approach writing with a healthier perspective.

Writing Quote by Stephen KingAnother motivational boost comes from reminding myself that I am a professional. This means I don’t just think about writing, dream about writing, or talk about writing — I do it. A professional writer puts the same integrity, (doing the right thing whether anyone else can see or hear them or not), into their craft as the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. I refuse to be the amateur Stephen King talks about.

Writing What Others Can't SayMy past and present circumstances are more than writing fodder, they are also qualifiers. My unique experiences qualify me to speak about subjects, while my role as a professional writer enables me to say what others cannot due to willingness or ability. This is why writing is both privilege and responsibility. This thought alone motivates me to action when I feel unmotivated.

In speaking with many of my author friends, I find I’m not the only one who needs the occasional reminder to move my fingers across the keyboard when I feel like pushing buttons on the remote. The truth is, writing is hard under ideal conditions, but it can feel excruciating when life batters you with tough situations. This is where my writing mettle is tested.

  • Am I serious?
  • Will I resolve to follow through no matter what?
  • Can I motivate myself when I’d most like to bury myself in bed and pull the covers over my head?

Writer at WorkThe answer is yes. After all, I am a professional. And professional authors get to work — one intentional word at a time.

Does your writing come easy, or do you require a motivational push to do the daily word grind?

 

The Miserably Fabulous Craft of Writing

I have a confession to make. The only Stephen King book I have ever read is his fabulous book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That said, if you can only read one book about writing, this might be it. Mining some of my favorite gems from this work, I hope to help you polish your own rough stones.

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“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” I can only echo a hearty “Amen!” Whether I’m working on a term paper, a short article, a book proposal, or an actual book, I always sit down and enter my title, my name, and anything else I know, just to avoid that blank page. Perfection is the enemy of writing. If that’s your initial aim, you’ll procrastinate and you won’t write. You’ll likely never read anything you’ve written and smile to yourself, “Well, there is absolutely NOTHING I can do to improve this beauty!” Nope. Your editor will get a hold of it if you don’t. [Insert evil laugh here.] But when you begin a story, that’s not the time to labor over each word. Get it down. Start. You’ll have lots of time to labor over rewriting and editing later. “The definition of a writer is someone who writes,” declared a now-forgotten workshop leader at my first-ever seminar. Write already.

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” It’s quite possible that I am addicted to reading. I read at stoplights. I read on a float in the pool, in the bathtub, by the stove while I stir things, on my lunch break when teaching, while taking my mile walks, and the last thing before I turn in at night. Reading sparks ideas, allows you to admire fresh turns of phrase, and inspires you to work that same magic, carrying future readers to your setting, helping them to fall in love with your characters.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” I don’t remember where I read this, but one novelist wrote that he never writes until he’s inspired. “And I see to it,” he continued, “that I am inspired every morning at 9:00 a.m.” Writing is work. Writing is dedication. Writing is a miserably fabulous craft!

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” When my second book with Harvest House came out, I got the proofs and asked my amazing editor, Hope Lyda, what had happened to some of the quotes and paragraphs I had so lovingly delivered. She was gracious. “Ahem, those went to keep company with some other lonely words and paragraphs.” I see. She had kidnapped and killed my darlings. It was a better book for their absence.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Taped to the windowsill above my desk is this little gem by Dwight Swain:

Strive for:

The Vivid Noun

The Active Verb

The Colorful Phrase

The Intriguing Detail

The Clever Twist

The Deft Contrast

All of us have fallen asleep during a long paragraph in which the writer has gotten carried away by his own love of (too much) language. She ran her fingers through the water languidly, indolently, lethargically, lazily….All right already! Crisp. Clear. Concise.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Whether we favor Nooks or Kindles or the tactile experience of pages fluttering, bold ink making grand statements and words sweeping us away to other times, other people, other conflicts, when we take books with us, we carry time machines. We carry mini-encyclopedias of knowledge. We carry the life, loves, and losses of characters about whom we are made to care very much. When we write them–ahhh–we are making our own kind of magic.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates . . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” The process of writing is not often fun. But we do it anyway. Why? Because we know what books mean. We know they will never go out of fashion. And we are gluttons for punishment, because that book means magic, housed in the pages of something you have been honored to write; imprinted on the hearts of those who read it and won’t soon forget how your words made them feel. And when we write for God’s glory, we surpass even magic.

What are some writing truths you’ve learned?

Facing Trouble with Courage

Photo/TaraRoss“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).

Have you faced trouble in your journey as a writer? Have you been tempted to give up on your writing dreams or career because of failure, rejection, humiliation, shame, or judgment?

Fear of judgment, criticism, or shame? When I struggled with some critical comments and judgment years ago, I expressed my frustration to my husband, Dan. I winced at his abrupt and honest response, “Karen, not everyone is going to like you.”

Photo/TaraRossDan’s statement shocked me, as he reminded me that not everyone likes me or agrees with my opinions. And I’ve revisited that story many times, when I try to encourage other writers.

I still grieve over rejection or criticism, and I prefer to walk away from all confrontations. But I’ve learned a lot from my failures—in relationships and writing.

Photo/TaraRossFear of writing process? In his book On Writing, author Stephen King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

Even well-known writers must face rejections and criticism. The writing process demands prewriting, drafting, revising, and proofreading before any publication. You may become offended or embarrassed when someone offers constructive criticism. Some writers even give up rather than face more editing, critical remarks, or rejection letters.

Fear of rejection and failure? Do you see rejection as failure? Failure often points us toward changes in our direction and priorities. C. S. Lewis explained, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

Author J. K. Rowling agrees with the advantages of failure.

Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Thomas A. Edison advised, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Tempted to give up? I’ve been tempted to give up more times than I’d like to admit. Have you given up on something because of a failure?

Matthew 26 describes a time when the disciples faced failure. They fell asleep while Jesus prayed, after He asked them to stay on the lookout for danger or trouble in the Garden of Gethsemane. They must have grieved over their lost opportunity and broken promise. But Jesus responded, “Get up! Let’s get going!” (Matt. 26:46 MSG)

There will be experiences like this in each of our lives … times of despair caused by real events in our lives, and we will be unable to lift ourselves out of them. The disciples … had done a downright unthinkable thing … gone to sleep instead of watching with Jesus. But our Lord came to them taking the spiritual initiative against their despair and said, in effect, “Get up, and do the next thing.” If we are inspired by God, what is the next thing? It is to trust Him absolutely and to pray on the basis of His redemption.

Never let the sense of past failure defeat your next step. (Oswald Chambers)

Embracing vulnerability. Finding the courage to risk failure requires us to be vulnerable.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken ….”

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, “spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.” She suggests, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” Brown concludes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Choosing to become vulnerable could be one of the most courageous things we can do as a writer. Writing about our opinions, our faith, and our relationships takes courage.

What lessons have you learned about vulnerability?

Video/TED (Brené Brown: “The Power of Vulnerability”)
Photos/TaraRoss

The Craft of Writing

The dictionary defines ‘craft’ by making references to skill, dexterity, cunning, and even deceit. Of course, it is normally associated with a deft manual skill to produce a thing of value or beauty. Trying to decide exactly what is the good and acceptable product of a skilled craftsman we then descend rapidly into the shadowy realms of subjectivity.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that.

I have just been reading George Orwell’s little manifesto entitled ‘Why I Write,’ which he published in 1946, the year I was born. Orwell was undoubtedly a craftsman, knew his craft well, and was literate and articulate enough to write succinctly about it. In the early part of the book, he lists what he believes to be the four main reasons, or motives, why a person would want to seriously write.

  1. Egoism
  2. Aesthetic
  3. Historical
  4. Political

The first motive is probably the strongest driver, if we are honest enough to admit to it. It is the desire to be seen to be clever, to be talked about, to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and even to be remembered after our death, though we won’t be around to bask in the glory.

Becoming a writer is an odd desire in many ways. What I mean is, if you want to be a painter, a carpenter, an engineer, a dentist or a doctor, it is assumed you will have to be trained and fully learn your craft before you can produce or do anything really good.

To become a writer is somehow different from all the other professions, in that you can go to university to study English literature and attend creative writing courses run by eminent successful writers. In the UK, I imagine hundreds do just this, and I guess in the USA it probably numbers in the thousands. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out in the same way as for the people who study diligently to become craftsmen in other disciplines. In my doctor’s office, I see on the wall his credentials proudly displayed–the Medical Certificate, which says he can practice as a GP. I look at that and trust him implicitly.

If writers had consulting rooms, like doctors, and I saw on the wall the University degrees in literature, philosophy, history and the like, would I assume that the holder of these prestigious awards was a great writer? We all know the answer to this question. It’s a simple, unvarnished ‘no’.

The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of learning to become a writer can be learnt, but it doesn’t guarantee that the student will be a great or even a good writer. But why doesn’t it?

Returning to George Orwell and his little essay ‘Why I write,’ he says this about considering what makes a good writer: “…it has to do with the writer’s early development; his subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, by his acquired emotional attitudes, his temperament, his maturity and not forgetting the all-important motives, listed above.”

From the point of view given in the paragraphs above it is clear that learning the craft of writing is not enough. We can partition this activity as the objective study of writing. All the rest is established in the subjective department of the writer. This latter realm cannot be taught. It is indeterminate, unique, special, incalculable, complex, mystical, beautiful, tangible yet ephemeral, and at some precious moment even eternal.

It is the human psyche which holds the secret. What pours out onto the ‘tabular rasa’ is a miracle at times. Where does it come from? It comes from the life within. It can be good, bad and ugly, but when it is truly creative and inspired, it shows. And more importantly readers know it too. It becomes a shared experience par excellence. It binds us together in unity. It applauds the human race. It raises us out of the mire and places us firmly on the mountain top. Hallelujah!

PS – For some other writers’ views see :

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
  3. On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss