How do you find your subject?: Frequent Questions

Q: How do you figure out what to say if you have no idea what to say?

A: Just start writing.

I’m not being facetious: When I have no idea what to write, I write. I open up a blank Word doc and let my fingers free-associate on the subject. To paraphrase Seth Godin, the only reason I come up with any good ideas is because I’m not afraid to come up with bad ones.

So just write down anything you can think of. And then walk away.

Literally, walk. Take the dog for a walk—if you don’t have a dog, borrow your neighbor’s. Or I suppose you could also walk by yourself. In fact, that might be preferable. Just walk and breathe and enjoy the sights, and give yourself permission not to think about your writing project.

Inevitably, you will begin thinking about your writing project.

You may realize that some of the ideas you came up with actually have a tiny glimmer of creativity embedded in them. Time to go back to your desk and try to coax out that glimmer; see if you can turn that idea into an actual sentence. Then a paragraph.

The subject may be hiding

Sometimes—and especially when I start writing before I’ve got a real handle on my subject or theme—sometimes I find my opening paragraph in an unexpected place. Usually in paragraph 2.

It makes sense. When I’m not really sure where I’m going with a piece of writing, I spend the first paragraph explaining the idea to myself. Like the exposition in a play or movie, or the pilot episode of a TV show, I set the scene and describe the problem I’m writing about. And only then do I dive into the heart of the matter.

This may well be fine writing—and sometimes I find I can even use it later in the piece. But it’s not suitable for the opening paragraph. An opening paragraph needs to grab the reader by the collar—or if that metaphor seems too violent, it needs to put its metaphorical arm around the reader’s shoulder, and say: Here! See this? Isn’t it the most fascinating thing you’ve thought about in days?

So if you’re not sure what to write about, just start writing. You might just find out you have something important to say.

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