How do you write when you have no ideas? When I taught Language Arts and Journalism, I often watched students stare at their blank pages, bewildered. They knew they had to write – and they even wanted to write – but they had nothing to write about.
Welcome to the club! It’s illustrious and teeming with authors, bloggers, scriptwriters and freelancers. All writers get stuck sometimes. Even professional journalists on assignment, published book authors with an editor breathing down their neck, and Oscar-winning screenwriters who have a swiftly-approaching deadline. Even unknown bloggers like me get stuck even though I typically write more than 2,000 words a day. Actually, my problem is a little different: I have too many ideas, too much to write about…and I get paralyzed. I feel like I have nothing to write about because of my jumbled thoughts and ideas and plans.
But even though I often have ideas for blog posts and even magazine articles (which I never pitch because I’d rather be blogging), I know the feeling of having nothing to write about. So you’ve come to the right place, fellow scribe. Put your feet up; my seven writing tips will give you something to write about. I guarantee it! Because even if you still aren’t motivated and have no ideas at the end of this blog post, you can write about how bored and tired you were while reading. And then you can write about that.
Yes, I was an annoying teacher 🙂 When students came to me and said, “I have nothing to write about” I’d tell them to write about being bored and uninspired. Where does your mind go when it’s unoccupied? How often are you bored? What do you think about and feel most often? Who do you think about when you have nothing to do? What is the most boring activity in the world? Write about stuff like that.
But read these tips first. You may find more ideas than you can shake a pen at.
7 Ways to Get Ideas to Write About
“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open,” says Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
Easier said than done, Natalie. (I can call her that because I went to her book reading at the Vancouver Public Library a million years ago. I’m sure she remembers me. I was one in a million!).
You may be perfectly happy – and willing – to write about ideas that disturb and scare you. The problem is you have no ideas. Word of warning: Don’t fall into the trap of believing you have “writer’s block.” That will become a self-fulfilling downward spiral and you really will have no ideas to write about. Instead, focus on writing a rough first draft of your project.
1. Fight discouragement
Discouragement is a death knell for successful writers because once it sets in, it suffocates your motivation to write. Discouraging thoughts will kill your creativity and suffocate even the smallest spark of a good idea. Instead of sitting and staring at your blank paper or screen (like I forced my students to do), get up. Go somewhere. Talk a walk, run, bike ride or swim. If you’re in class, ask your teacher if you can walk around the school. The most important thing is to fight the discouragement.
The best way to fight discouragement is to get specific. Are you discouraged because, say, you’re not getting enough traffic to your blog right now? Or many you have nothing to write about because you feel pressured to make money as a freelance writer. Or maybe you’re trying to find an essay topic. I don’t know what your situation is…but you do. And that means you need to dig around inside you.
2. Stop thinking about what to write about
Take a deep breath. Settle your bum in your chair. Close your phone or laptop. Get off the internet; it is stealing every original idea you might have!
Instead of trying to find something to write about, just start writing whatever comes into your head. Let your thoughts flow, your imagination rise, your emotions bubble to the surface. Don’t think. Just write whatever is in your head. What made you mad last night? Who are you worried about? Why are you looking for ideas to write about? Where are you going tomorrow? Write about it all.
3. Do the “Write ~ Reward” dance
To force myself to write when I think I have nothing to write about, I say: “Laurie, after you’ve worked on the editor’s assignment client’s stuff for 30 minutes, then you can reward yourself by blogging for an hour.” I don’t consider blogging writing. This is play. To me, real writing involves books, magazine articles, church articles and copy for clients. After I do my real writing, I reward myself by blogging.
What’s your idea of real writing? What’s your idea of a reward for coming up with ideas to write about, writing for 20 minutes, then taking a little break? This dance can take you miles down the road…and you’ll barely notice how far you’ve come. Until you arrive at your destination. Then you’ll be a happy writer.
4. Put a new spin on an old theme
Some writers have more ideas than they can use; other writers struggle to come up with ideas they think editors, agents, or publishers will buy. One way to write despite “idea block” is to spice up what’s already been written. For example, there are a million articles on how to write a book. How can you spin this idea and make it more unique?
Here’s an example from earlier this morning: a couple years ago I wrote an article for alive magazine about women’s circles (which I called “girl gangs”). This morning I used some of the research and interview excerpts to answer a reader’s comment. I called this new blog post How Women’s Circles Help You Stop Feeling Bad About Yourself. Learn how to rewrite previously successful (or boring) themes and ideas in fresh new ways.
5. Write bad, boring stuff with bad, boring ideas
“All of us who do creative work … get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good,” says American public radio personality Ira Glass. He won lots of awards, including the Peabody, and wrote the forward of Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel.
“A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that.
6. Remember how fast words add up!
Write a lot…one word at a time. “The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work,” says Natalie Goldberg. “Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap.”
If you’re a new freelance writer, you’ll hate spending hours writing and pitching article query letters, and hearing nothing back from magazine editors. Find a writing buddy to help you through the dry spells. He/she can be another freelance writer or an entrepreneur. Find someone who has career goals similar to yours, and work together to achieve your goals. Make a pact to share your progress – and figure out effective “punishments” if you don’t perform satisfactorily. Be there for each other.
7. Say yes to writer’s slump (but not writer’s block)
“Writing is elemental,” said Natalie in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. “Once you have tasted its essential life, you cannot turn from it without some deep denial and depression. It would be like turning from water.”
Natalie Goldberg also said:
“A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.”
Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”
What do you think, fellow scribe? I hope one of these ideas will give you something to write about…or at least something to think about. Eventually your thoughts will lead to something worth writing down. And all will be well!
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