What to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write

This week, I’m taking a break from The Psych Writer to discuss writing.

Writing is my bread and butter. I have some posts I’ve written about writer’s block, and facing the terror of the blank page. In fact, I’ve written about the blank page twice, at least. But writer’s block still seems to be one of the biggest complaints I’ve seen among young writers or writers who are just starting out.

Recently, I got this in the form of a question. “What am I supposed to write when I don’t know what to write?”

Since I am trained as a therapist, I tend to want to pick apart problems and either reframe them or otherwise deconstruct them in order to help.

So when you don’t know what to write, it could be for a variety of reasons.

  • You may be afraid of failing and not completing a project.
  • You may be afraid of succeeding and not knowing what to do next.
  • You may think your writing will never be good enough, so part of you feels it’s not even worth starting.

There are obviously many more reasons for keeping that page blank, but for this post, let’s just focus on these three. If you have one or two you’d like me to address, please shoot me a message on Facebook if you’d like, and I’ll address them in future posts.

  1. You’re afraid of failing and not completing a project.
    It happens. I have a few manuscripts I’ve abandoned about 3/4 of the way through because the idea wasn’t panning out, I couldn’t write the characters in a way that satisfied me, or a variety of other reasons. It happens to everyone. Think of your favorite writer, living or dead, and I could almost guarantee you they have abandoned and unfinished work.

    The best way to get around this is the “fuck it” philosophy. Say to yourself that you’re going to start a project and if it doesn’t pan out, fuck it. Start over, change direction, whatever. You can also just keep going even if you know it sucks, because the first draft of everything sucks. So go until you’re finished. Write until there’s no story left. You can revise it later.

  2. You may be afraid of succeeding and not knowing what to do next.
    This is one I’ve heard a few times now, so it’s not terribly uncommon. In this case, you’re fortune-telling. Can you really see the future and know you’ll be devoid of further ideas? Well, so what? One book that’s finished beats the hell out of one half-finished story that never got off the ground. Preventing yourself from succeeding because of what might be next cheats you out of the satisfaction of a finished project.
  3. You may think your writing will never be good enough, so part of you feels it’s not even worth starting.
    There’s one thing I’ve learned, and I’ve said it above–the first draft of everything is a steaming pile of crap. Some of it has potential, but every first draft needs to be reworked. You will learn to kill your darling manuscript with a hatchet at first, then come back with fine, surgical editing tools to improve it. Tell the part of you that tells you it’s not worth starting to shut up,  because that part of you cannot know what it feels like to finish a project. You have to get to the end to know what that’s like.

When you sit down to the keyboard, or sit with a pen and paper, block out the future. Block out expectations. Block out everything but you and that page, and tell it your passions, your fears, your world.

Get writing.


I am Anne Hogue-Boucher, and I write books. You can read them here.

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