It’s easier to write when you know what you want to say

A clear story writes itself.

It’s easier to write when you know what you want to say. “Duh,” you may say, “I could have told you that, Claus.” Yes, it’s a pretty obvious statement. But I wouldn’t dismiss its value so easily. When you’re trying to write something, and you get stuck, you need to know why you’re stuck. There may be two reasons: First, you can be stuck because you don’t know what you want to say. Second, you can be stuck because even though you do know what you want to say, you don’t know how to say it. Those two are very distinct scenarios, and they require different courses of action. Can you tell when you find yourself in either? And if so, do you know how to deal with the situation effectively?

How to tell

It may require some experience and careful introspection to figure out which scenario you’re in. However, there are a few tell-tale signs. For example, do you have a clear idea of what the overarching story is? And if not, do you at least know exactly what the specific paragraph is about that you’re presently writing? I find that it happens quite frequently to me that I do know exactly what the story is, and I even know exactly what ideas I want to express in the present paragraph, and yet I can’t get the right sentences together. That’s a scenario of not knowing how to say it. On the flip side, if you’re not clear on the overarching story, and if you couldn’t express in a single, short sentence what the current paragraph is about, then you’re still at the stage where you don’t know what to say.

Here, I would like to take a moment to explain the idea of “having a story.” Every time you write something, there needs to be a story. Even if you’re writing the most boring review article on the latest changes in accounting law, your article needs to have a story line. There needs to be a clear beginning, a clear development, and a clear end. If you can’t express the story of the piece you’re writing in a sentence or two, you probably haven’t figured out yet what it actually is that you want to say.

What to do when you don’t know what to say

The more difficult case arises when you don’t know what to say. The action that needs to be taken is relatively straightforward, however. If you don’t know what to say, if you don’t have a story yet, then you should probably not be writing at this time. Instead, you should be working on developing a story. There are many techniques, such as freewriting, mind-mapping, outlining, talking to friends, taking psychedelic mushrooms. (On further reflection, strike the latter one.) Some of these activities involve you putting words on paper, others don’t. Importantly, none of them involve you writing publication-quality prose. So don’t even try. If you don’t have a story, don’t waste your time trying to write one down.

There’s one exception to this advice: Sometimes you don’t know the overarching story but you do have an idea what the specific paragraph or subsection should be about. In this case, it’s fine to write just that part of the text without worrying about the overall story. To give a concrete example, I think it’s fine to start writing up the results of a scientific study before the study is even completed.

What to do when you don’t know how to say it

When you’re only dealing with a problem of not knowing how to best say something, the situation is much easier to resolve. If you know what you want to say in principle, you just have to say it whichever way it comes out. You derive absolutely no benefit from staring at a blank page and agonizing over a single word or a single sentence. It’s much better to just write something down, no matter how awful, and move on. You can always come back later and fix the problematic sentence, after you’ve written all of the surrounding text. I often find that when I revisit the problematic sentence later on, what I wrote the first time round isn’t so awful after all, or even if it is, I can easily find an appropriate fix.

For these reasons, I have now made it a habit that whenever I find myself staring at a blank page for more than a few minutes, I force myself to write down the first thing that comes to my mind, and then I move on. It has made a big difference in my overall writing output and my sense of happiness while writing.

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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