You’ve finally found some time to write and sit down at your desk, but you can’t stop flitting between all your different projects. Or you open that blank Word document and suddenly your mind, which was buzzing with possibilities seconds before, is as empty as the computer screen in front of you.
How do you choose what to write about? How do you dig in and commit to a single writing project? I often find myself facing this dilemma and have found three strategies that help me when I can’t decide what to write about.
Start with a Question
Whether you write personal essays, informative articles, or short stories, questions are powerful. You can use questions to guide your process. In this post, we’re going to focus on personal essays, though you can modify the instructions to fit other genres of writing.
Currently, I’m working on a project about how mutants from the X-Men provide a model for exploring tensions among queer Mormons. As a queer Mormon, I’m asking questions about how I fit into these communities that are often seen as in opposition to one another and how I can work to bring about some reconciliation between these communities.
Questions connect you to your curiosity. Often, I find myself writing because I feel that I have something to say and I have answers to share. Sometimes this is productive. However, when I focus on exploring questions rather than answers, I feel better about what I write and usually surprise myself.
When I begin my writing with answers, I often end up feeling like I missed perspectives and insights that would enrich the writing. I even sometimes feel that my writing talks down to my readers because I view myself as above them.
As I begin my writing with a question, I can use that question to animate the essay. The question doesn’t need to be explicitly stated and may even disappear into the background throughout the writing and revising process.
When you begin with a question, the end result will probably be more compelling and inviting for a wider range of readers because you leave yourself open to surprises along the way. You also are able to present your ideas from a place of discovery, which helps you avoid preaching or condescending to your readers.
Write What You Know
Writers are often counseled to write what they know. I believe in the value of this advice. However, we can sometimes be too narrow in our interpretation of what it means. We should expansively understand the phrase “write what you know” so that we can all fully express ourselves creatively.
I suggest grounding your writing in your emotional knowledge. Sometimes, people suggest that writing what you know limits you to a thinly veiled biography. This doesn’t seem useful or practical to me. However, writing from your emotional knowledge gives you the flexibility to explore a variety of events and experiences that you may not have personally gone through.
If you choose to focus on some events or experiences that you have not personally gone through, research to cover what you don’t know. Research can empower you so that you can write your emotional truth with the confidence that the facts and background are also accurate.
For my current project, my research will most importantly include revisiting the X-Men films, the ’90s animated series, and some select comics. As I revisit all of these X-Men media, I plan to read analyses of X-Men that focus on the ways that mutants have represented various marginalized communities throughout history and the tensions those communities experience.
The research will help augment my lived experience as a queer Mormon so I can identify parallels—since I have unfortunately never been a mutant, no matter how badly I’ve tried to read minds like Prof. X or teleport like Nightcrawler.
Follow Your Passion
Perhaps after doing all of that, you still feel torn in different directions. Maybe you have so many questions and such a wide range of knowledge that using those as a basis doesn’t limit your options. When that’s the case, I try to follow my passion.
I’m almost always juggling multiple projects, which is just how my mind works. Whenever I have time to work on something, I focus on the project that I always find myself thinking about. Right now, I can’t stop thinking about the richness of possibility with using mutants and the X-Men to explore tensions within the queer Mormon community, so that’s the project I tend to focus on.
If this approach doesn’t work, go through your various projects or ideas one by one and think about NOT writing each one. As you do this, pay attention to your emotional response. I usually find myself feeling more strongly about one of the pieces, and that’s the one that I focus on writing.
Often, my passions are linked to the question(s) that I keep returning to. Passion fuels my writing and adds emotion and depth that can’t be faked.
Next time you find yourself with time to write and your mind is either buzzing with too many possibilities or utterly blank, use these tips. Your voice and your story matters, so follow your questions, experience, and passion to create something only you can bring into the world.