If you’re stuck in your writing or struggling to start, it’s almost always due to one thing:
You’ve reached the end of what you know (or you're letting what you don't know keep you from writing what you do know).
In my entire career as a writer, if I could boil writing down to 2 dictums, they would be these:
That’s why I see so many non-writers get stuck.
First, many of us get started writing because we think we have a story (usually about our lives) we want to tell. And that’s great. Start with what you know.
But then, that’s where we get stuck. Because the more important part of writing comes in.
After you’ve written what you know, you have to learn what you don’t know.
Often this comes in during the writing process, if you’re open to it. But many of us are too busy writing what we know that we forget to ask:
What am I supposed to learn from writing this so I can teach others?
Anytime you find yourself writing a new piece or stuck in your writing, there are 7 easy questions you can ask.
And this works for all writing—fiction, nonfiction, short pieces, journalism articles, and even poetry. A lot of times these questions will become convoluted with terms like “character” or “setting” or “scene” or “plot”—but the essence in all writing boils down to these same questions:
If you’re counting, you’ll see those are just six. The seventh question is a bit of a wild card and where the nuance of asking questions plus the specifics of your writing project come in.
Basically, the seventh question is the first question that leads to the next series of inquiry. Or, if you really need an actual question to help you, it would be this:
What else? Or, What am I missing? Do I need to change my perspective? How do I get to the next step? Etc.
How can you find where you are in your writing and decide which way you want to go or the story needs to go next?
Let’s look at how this might play out in real writing situations.
Who? This is as easy as, Who is the book about? More than likely this will be you, but not always. But again, let’s step outside ourselves a bit, because even memoir is not just about you. Who else needs to be in it? Who has had an impact in your life? Who was not there when you needed help? Who is telling the story?
In fiction, this would be Characters (protagonist, antagonist, etc.). There are lots of possible players. That’s why it’s best to simplify this by simply asking, Who? Who needs to be in this to make the story complete? Include everyone you think might, at first, and then take them out as you see they’re not needed.
In poetry, some would call this Identity. Who is speaking?
What? What happens? What does the main character want? Or, what do you want? What keeps getting in the way? What makes this story interesting? What are the specific events that move the story along?
Why? Why does it matter? Why are you the one to write it? Why is it important? Why does the character want this so much?
When? This is part of setting (along with Where). When do these things take place? It can feel like a supplementary question, but also can help ground the rest of the story.
Where? This is Place—as important if not more so than Character, "Who?" There is a lot of writing recently about Place, and it’s important. It’s what makes us who we are. (Remember my Word of the Year, “here”?) But also, where does the story go from here?
How? Of course, why most of you are here: How to combine all of these elements AND use writing to tell the story? How do I find the right words? How do I arrange it, structure it? The place to start is by asking the question. If you can’t answer it, ask someone else.
Finally, what else can you ask? Sometimes you can start back at “who?” again, and see if there are any other questions missing. Or simply start asking all the questions that you realize you don’t know the answers to.
Writing down your questions is still writing—and a very important part of the process.
Now the writing can really begin. This is where you start to take the craft of writing to an art form:
Learning to ask questions.
Have any questions for me? One of the greatest values I can offer is being a sounding board. When you’re stuck, it’s good to have someone who’s been there before, but also to have someone who can, and is not afraid to, think creatively. You can email me or comment below.