I’ve spent uncountable hours over the years wanting to write, feeling ready in many ways, but not knowing what to write. Which completely tanks it and makes it seem like a fail, with endless fails to come.
It’s not that I don’t know my topic or what my project is, nor even that I don’t have any ideas. I have lots of ideas. I know my topic.
Maybe I could admit that at such times I don’t feel I have good ideas. Maybe I can admit that I don’t have a lot of research to go on or a lot of knowledge or whatever. Those feelings certainly make it worse, but what I’m going to talk about here is something else more particular and peculiar and on the very practical level of sitting down to write: I don’t know where to get started, what should I, right now in this moment, write the next words about. Do you know what I mean? I mean literally am lost as to what to actually do now.
So this post is especially about that particular affliction.
This can particularly afflict me when I’m picking up after a long break of writing, but not only then. It’s also when I’ve written even quite a bit but feel like I’ve run out, or it’s kind of a random mess, or both.
It’s on the level of what do I do now, even when I have a draft going? Even when there’s already some text, where do I start to write? I have struggled with this, and I’ve found a way through this stage.
It’s not going to be a shocker solution. It’s just quite simple, yet effectively turns the momentum around from aimlessness to enthusiasm.
Perhaps I’m over-sharing about my personal problems, but I think it’s important for writers to know that other writers have these problems and that they can be overcome.
So yeah, I can aimlessly poke around in my writing and get fairly disheartened.
But here’s what I do, and what I have to watch out for when I do it.
- I read through my existing text and find any sentences or small groups of sentences that represent important and/or complex ideas that… how can I say it?… go by too fast. Oftentimes the sentence might even be perfectly clear and precise, as far as I can tell, so technically it’s “correct” and logically leads to the next thought, but it goes by too fast. It’s too condensed. Or– and I find this in graduate student writing, like, all the time– there are several complex or important ideas packed together in one sentence. I often tell students that one could write at least a paragraph on each of four or five clauses in a long, often theoretical sentence. But obviously it can’t just be grad students who do this if I’m also doing it. And yet it doesn’t have to be a complex sentence. It could be a technically correct and logical simple sentence with one idea. But why not explain it in detail, even going over elementary ideas that the more erudite reader already understands? Expanding on such moments are fantastic writing prompts for when you are stuck in the way we are speaking of now. So while this might not be shockingly impressive, if you are feeling truly aimless then you have got to focus on turning that around first before you can satisfy all the other things you want from your writing. So, simply writing on each of these sentences or moments in the existing text is way to fill your writing sessions with some focus and aim. That’s it, write some pages on moments in your text, with no plan for how it will work. Use anything capable of elaboration or clarification as your writing prompt. Now, you know what to do next. And after some short sessions like this, you’ll feel like you are a writer again and can move on. Skip this modest step, and you might be in the swamp of aimlessness for a while.
- Realize that in doing this you are “therapizing” your writing process. That’s the focus and aim, and it’s only temporary. Maybe only some short sessions over a few days. You are not writing the perfectly coherent structured essay. You are getting yourself out of a practical and even psychological pit. You wanted something to do because you were aimless. Now you have it, so do it. Don’t worry that now you are going off on a tangent (it’s probably actually not a tangent, since you are expanding the moment in a text that was already there) or worry about how it’s going to fit back into the whole or into what happens next. You are writing something, and you are writing it because that was your aim. Be happy with that. You’ve probably already tried to get over the aimlessness AND have a perfect draft roll out in perfect order, with all theoretical and substantive elements falling out of you and into place. Save those desires for a some time in the future, maybe only a few days in the future.
- Get a bunch of these identified and cued up in your mind, and go to quick work writing anything that comes to mind, one by one on the items for short periods of time, but several days in a row. It’s important to try and make this short periods of time for a few days in a row or as close as possible to that. That’s how you get the momentum turned around. If you are like me there is no shortage of little assignments. Not only are there quick-passing moments in the text that are distinct clear ideas, but there are parts that you’re pretty sure do not make any sense. Same thing, write a lot on that moment until it is all explained. Get a list or inventory—I just use margin comments– of these moments and now you have a bunch of writing tasks that will take up your writing sessions and give them some aim.
- This technique of getting going by getting some practical aim in the moment thus boils down to slowing your text down. “Milking it” is the exaggerated expression that I might use as an extreme. Most of the time you are far from milking it, especially if you are the typical grad student, or if you are me. There are condensed parts that are just way too condensed. You are now doing the right thing, but let’s be willing to go so far as be willing to milk it. You should also be willing to write shitty things. And also, and this will be common I suspect for theoretical things, write things that have been said before or that don’t seem original. Adopt the stance of a teacher. Take the reader by the hand and show them all the steps inherent in the one step you have chosen to expand.
- Again always, always keep in mind that you are focused mainly on one thing: countering the aimlessness. Don’t pile up a lot of other problems you want solved simultaneously. I know to say this because as a fellow aimless person I know that you have a lot of wants and desires, and this is contributing to the aimlessness. This technique gives you something concrete to do when you sit down to write. Do it enough, and you feel transformed as a writer, and then you can go on to tackle other problems.
- Finally, really take it in and absorb the feeling of having sat down to write, knowing what you were going to do, and then doing it. That’s the base of feeling for a writer with momentum, which will take you farther. Concentrate on this pattern regardless of your other wants and desires and just watch how far it will take you. Sit down to write knowing what you are going to do, then do it, and repeat. Sooner than expected, you will feel fit and able to make progress again.
For More Help:
Academic Muse has the famous 5 eBook series on how to be a writer in academia and it’s entirely free. Click here to get all the books in this free series.