Weekend Edition – 5 Questions to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Write

How to Figure Out What [You Really Want] to Write:

mary oliver wild lifeWhen I first saw the movie Contact, I was deeply envious of Jodie Foster’s character, the dedicated and driven astronomer, Dr. Ellie Arroway. Her single-minded pursuit of the truth about extraterrestrial life impressed the hell out of me. She was on a mission, a quest. She wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way. She believed in something, and that belief shaped every detail of who she was and how she lived her life. Because she was sure about what she was doing, she was able to throw herself into the work without reservations or doubts. Her approach was a full-court press that channeled all her energy and effort into achieving a single goal.

I would like to know what that feels like.

··• )o( •··

So far, my writing journey has been more pantsed than plotted. I know I love to write, but beyond that I don’t have much of a plan. This year marks the passage of four decades since I penned my first journal entry at the age of seven. Over those forty years, I have continued to practice and study writing. I have read innumerable stories, novels, and craft books. I have published hundreds of blog posts, written dozens of columns, and developed certain “marcom” (marketing and communications) writing skills enough that I now earn my living with words.

This is all good, but it’s not enough.

It’s trite but true that life is short. We only have so much time to create, and we never know when the sands in the hourglass will run out. It might be a little morbid, but I want to use my time wisely. The question is, what does time spent wisely look like … for me? What do I really want to write?

It’s an important question.

Each artist – writer, painter, dancer, etc. – creates because there’s something specific he or she wants to express. Whether we are writing poems or stories or novels, we writers write because have something to say. Sometimes, we know exactly what that something is, but other times we’re just sort of feeling our way in the dark, discovering as we go. While there’s nothing wrong with letting personal and artistic themes emerge organically over time, there is something to be said for honing in on your creative purpose – your “Writing Why” – so that you can craft your work more intentionally around that purpose.

As I’ve written before, clarity of purpose focuses your writing energy and effort:

It illuminates the ultimate reason you’re driven to write a thing and it helps you make critical decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Clarity is like a pair of enchanted glasses that filters out everything extraneous so you can hone in on exactly the things you need to tell your story. When you have clarity about your writing, you know what you want to say and you know how you want to say it. Writer’s Block becomes a thing of the past.

Study any artist’s body of work, and you will find recurring themes and “throughlines” that define and shape the work – certain ideas, beliefs, and questions. Writers often tell the same story over and over under different guises. A painter might paint the same subject hundreds of times – a sunset, a woman, a city. A musician might write song after song about the same experience. A poet might build an entire body of work writing about a single emotion.

In each of these cases, the artist has discovered and is exploring the Why behind the creative urge. Like Dr. Arroway searching the Universe for signs of life, the artist plumbs the depths of experience for meaning and connection.

··• )o( •··

I’ve written several posts about why we write, but they have mostly considered the question conceptually rather than tactically, universally rather than personally. I’ve looked at the subject from 30,000 feet up, but I haven’t yet put my feet on the ground so I can start digging in the dirt to unearth my specific reasons for writing. Up to this point, I’ve been content to meander along random paths; but lately I’m feeling a need to articulate my Writing Why in more concrete terms. I want to understand more about where I’m going and what I want to accomplish so that I can narrow down my choices and spend my time wisely.

To that end, I’ve put together an initial list of questions that I hope will help me better understand the reasons I write, and that – ultimately – will make me a better writer by focusing my attention and creativity around a cohesive and meaningful purpose. I realize that this is just a “starter list” and that I will likely need to add to it as I experiment with the process. I also realize that my reason for writing may evolve over time, changing in response to my life experiences. That’s all okay. At least this gives me a place to begin mapping out where I am and where I’m going. I can figure out the rest later.

··• )o( •··

Question 1: What do you love?

This is where most people start and end their search for their purpose. They ask themselves, “What’s my passion?” or “What am I passionate about?” Answering this question will never give you a complete understanding of why you write, but it’s as good a place as any to start exploring your motivations. Here are a few sub-questions to help kickstart your brainstorming process:

  • What are you most curious about?
  • What makes your heart leap with joy?
  • What makes you cry?
  • What makes you angry?
  • Are there topics that you return to again and again in your writing?
  • What do you collect?
  • What are your favorite things/memories/dreams?
  • Which are your favorite stories and books? (Bonus Question: Can you articulate WHY they are your favorites?)

Question 2: Who do you love?

We are often told to write for ourselves; don’t worry about anyone else, just write for you. While there is some merit to this advice (we should write from the heart and not be swayed by popular culture or the influences of our family and friends), if you write to be read you are writing to connect with other people. More specifically, you write to connect with a certain type of person. Marketers sometimes refer to an author’s “audience” or “tribe.” Whoever your people are, it’s important that you know who they are and what moves you to want to connect with them. Think about the following questions to help you get a clearer picture of just who you hope will read your writing.

  • Who do I love to spend my time with?
  • Who are your idols? Why are they your idols?
  • If you had to imagine your audience as one person, who would that person be? Who do you picture reading your work?
  • What attributes best describe your ideal reader? (Think about demographic attributes like age, gender, lifestyle, etc.; but also think about their personalities, philosophies, interests, and beliefs.)
  • Which people are not your people? (Sometimes it’s very helpful to find your “yes” by clearly defining your “no.”)

Question 3: What do you want to say?

This can be a tricky question. On the surface, it seems simple; but I can almost guarantee that once you start digging in, you’ll find it’s much more complex than you imagined. The best way to tackle this question is to keep asking it over and over, and each time you answer it ask yourself why you gave that answer. Be that annoying five year-old who never stops asking, “But, why?” Our off-the-cuff answers to this question are usually fluff. They are what we think we should say or a rehashing of what we’ve heard someone else say. That’s not it. Dig deeper. Ask again. Come at the question from different angles:

  • What do I wish I could teach the world?
  • What do I want to illuminate for people?
  • What do I see that others seem to be missing?
  • What questions do I want to ask?
  • Who or what needs a voice in this world?
  • What misconception or wrong assumption do I wish I could right?
  • What do I believe?

Question 4: What do you want to do?

If you are writing for an audience, you want to elicit a certain response. You want to touch their hearts or minds in some way. More to the point, you want to make them FEEL something. So – what is it that you want them to feel? Think about Maya Angelou’s words, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How many stories or books have you read that stay with you more as a feeling than a memory of actual characters or events? The way a piece of writing makes us feel is its essence. So …

  • How do you want to make people feel?
  • How do you want to change their perspective?
  • How do you want to change how they feel about themselves, life, their dreams?

Question 5: What do you want your writing life to look like?

Finally, reel yourself in from the conceptual and philosophical explorations and spend some time thinking about the Real World aspects of your writing life. What kind of writer do you want to be? What kind of writing do you want to do? Visualize your ideal writing life: What time do you get up in the morning? Where and when do you write? How do you publish? Do you travel? Do you work solo, or collaborate with other writers? Are you autonomous or do you work for hire? What does your perfect writing life feel like? The questions are endless here, but let’s start with a few basics:

  • Do you want to be a storyteller or a Writer – commercial or literary?
  • Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?
  • How much money do you want to make? (Be specific.)
  • Are you in it for fame?
  • Who do you want to impress?
  • Do you just want to be heard?
  • How do you define happiness?
  • How do you define freedom?
  • What does your ideal day look like?
  • What do you really need? (vs. what you assume you need)
  • When do you feel fulfilled artistically? Emotionally? Spiritually?

This is a long list of questions, I know. But, aren’t they fascinating? Don’t they make you wonder about how you might answer them and what those answers might tell you about yourself and your drive to write? It’s a process to uncover your Writing Why, but it’s a process that’s well worth the effort. The return on your investment of time and toil is a stronger sense of what makes you unique, what inspires you, and what you really want to offer the world – what you really want to write.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this question of your Writing Why and the process of trying to discover it. Please drop a note in the comments if there’s a story or idea you’d like to share. And, if you’d like to also share a few quick opinions, here’s a brief poll:

Thanks & happy writing to you! 

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

45 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – 5 Questions to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Write

    • Hello, Sheila! 🙂
      I think that our reason for writing is a bit of a moving target. I think it can evolve and change over time, and even when it’s staying more or less consistent can shift a bit this way or that. I’ve actually been thinking that this might be an annual discovery process for me … a sort of “check in” to make sure I’m staying aware of where I’m at and where I’m going.

      Thanks for coming by!

  1. I love reading your blog, I do not hope you mind me sharing some of your particular posts with friends of mine 🙂 Blessed Be and Peace be with You and Yours

    • My pleasure, Tina. As I said, I’m still figuring it out, but I figure I may as well share along the way. 🙂

  2. Interesting blog and questions. For interest…..About 15 years ago I asked a question…What happens to a strong united family when tragedy strikes particularly if one member is to blame and un-forgiveness is allowed to fester? Can there really be life Beyond the Ashes of the experience? My first book Beyond the Ashes. (It was in my heart, life and bits were being written during that whole time) I’m grateful that the question was answered because if was always there at the back of my mind.

    • Interesting, indeed, when you have a single question you want to answer. Writing can be a powerful tool for “unpacking” and exploring the possibilities of any situation. I hope that the experience has been a positive one for you.

  3. “What do you love?” is the question I often find myself asking. I’ve had to take a handful of creative writing classes, and sometimes I’m not passionate about the prompt. However, I’ve found ways to twist the prompt to fit my interests which makes writing much easier!

    • That’s a skill in itself! 😉
      I do the same thing – it’s a great way figure out what you like to write about. Once you start to see the patterns around the way you twist the prompts, things will get pretty clear.
      Have fun!

  4. Thank you for this post. I have had trouble writing lately. Maybe some of these questions will help me move on. But to answer your question of “My Writing Why”…. My first real effort to save my writing ( I tore up and threw away the writing I did when I was young, usually immediately after writing them) came from the desire to have memories for my children and family. Little things, forgotten through the years, things I thought would delight them when recalled. I then progressed, to a deeper cause, as I realized no one, not even my children, really knew who I was. No one knew all the things I had kept shut in for so many years. With these things in mind I started a book of short stories and poems. I have yet to put it completely together as there is always more. I have shared only a few of those stories and poems here on Word Press. I think too, as it is with many people I’m sure, writing has always been a release for me. Thanks again. I really enjoy reading your work.

    • I think it’s so important to be writing for someone – whether that person is you, or a loved one, or your younger self, or a particular “persona.” I am always more motivated and more passionate when I am writing “to” someone. I love the way your journey has progressed by gradually going deeper and becoming more intimate and perhaps vulnerable. Thanks for sharing that.

  5. Reblogged this on Thoughts from my Coffee Cup and commented:
    I don’t usually like to reblog posts, but this is one post that I’d want to come back to again and again. Not because I feel uncertain of what kind of writer/artist I am, but simply because I believe that there is always a place to learn something new. Especially when it comes to the artistic side of things. I will never be as good a writer as I want to be, because I will always want to be better, to know more, understand more, feel more…
    I’ll try to come back to this post again and again and rethink and discuss every question.

  6. Great post! I think a question I like to ask myself is, “What do I think about when I’m in the shower?” I know it sounds trite, but I truly believe my best ideas come when I’m under the veil of hot water, my mind free to roam, with no interruptions or outside influences. Plus, it’s like Pavlov’s dog. I think the moment I smell my shampoo my mind knows it’s free to wander!

    • Not trite at all – just true! 🙂
      I try to do some yoga most mornings, and I’ve found that that has become a bit of a creative source for me. I often find that while I’m focusing on a certain pose, my mind hits a moment of clarity that serves up, if not an actual epiphany, at least a good idea or thought worth exploring. I’ve learned to keep a notebook and pen handy so I don’t even have to leave my mat to capture the thought.

      Free-roaming minds are happy (and creative!) minds. Here’s to ’em!

  7. I cannot thank you enough for having written this post! These questions you’ve posed to us are exactly what I need to jumpstart my writing career…I couldn’t read your post fast enough!! You are a true gift to share with others your words of inspiration and optimism… Thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting my thoughts into words on a screen. This is exactly what I needed today!

    • Thank you very much, Lia, for such a warm and enthusiastic comment. Makes my day. I hope that you discover some useful things as you think about these questions in the context of your own journey. Have fun with it – you never know what might come up for you!

  8. HI! i absolutely love the way you have touched upon one of the most dangerously important questions an amateur writer like me needs to contemplate and reflect upon… ” WHY”…. many a times, infact most of the times I write with my need to play with free flowing expression on paper which can be a witness to my uneven pattern of thought processing, ends up misleading me from the theme I started to write on… will surely keep some of these inputs you mentioned in mind for genuine yet purposeful blogging..

    • “Why?” is a very important question that drives everything. It’s both a guide and a checkpoint. I’m looking forward to working through these questions for myself. Hope you enjoy the process!

  9. Fantastic post! I find myself thinking about the intersection of questions 1 and 3 — what do I love, and what do I want to say about it? Or closely related, what intrigues the bejeezus out of me and what do I want to say about *that*. Thanks for sharing!

    • That’s an excellent addition to the process, Kaarina. I love the idea of seeing where things intersect between your answers – like a Venn diagram. I’m going to have to play around with that. Thank you!

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