When Maya Angelou spoke about her daily writing routines, she described how she rented a hotel downtown and arrived there at 6:30 in the morning. She would write, stay until about two in the afternoon, then go home and look over what she had written that morning.
My question when I read that here was: did she have days like the rest of us? Did she have days where she got to that hotel room and stared at a blank page all morning?
People are constantly saying that, as writers, we need to write every day, and of course writers need to write. That’s what makes them writers. But what do we write when we can’t think of what to write?
I have a few answers in mind.
Write Down the End Goal You Have in Mind
When you sat down to write, what were you planning on talking about? Were you hoping to get to the end of a particular scene? Did you hope to express a particular emotion or tone throughout the piece you’re writing?
If so, just go ahead and write it down. Write what your end goal is once you understand where you want to go with what you’re writing. It could be just key words or general phrases that you keep repeating to yourself that you want, or it could even be full sentences to get you started and that you can edit later. This can lead to more outlining (if you’re the kind of writer who outlines) or more ideas to follow up on (if you enjoy writing without outlining first). In either case, knowing specifically what your destination is will at least get you started, even if it’s the only thing you write that day.
Just remember planning and editing are also part of the writing process, and no one says you can’t go back and take the scene in a new direction later. Writing down what’s needed to reach your goal is the first step to reaching your goal.
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Write Whatever Comes into Your Head
Let’s be honest, the first draft is usually pretty rough. Most likely you’ll go back and think “wait, this doesn’t even make any sense” or “WHAT WAS I EVEN THINKING??? THIS IS TERRIBLE.” (I’m usually the latter).
So if you’re trying to march ahead with that first draft but you keep getting stuck because nothing seems to be going right, just write down whatever you can think of. I find that just getting words onto paper (or screen) takes off a lot of stress. I get all the jumbled mess out of my head and somewhere else where I can organize it and turn it into something instead of just sitting there getting stressed.
And if you’re frustrated at where your writing has been going or you’re disappointed with it, just letting go and focusing on something else takes a lot of that stress away. If you don’t know what to say next, say something that you know won’t be the finished product just to give yourself a break.
Remember the Maya Angelou story I talked about earlier? I forgot to mention that, after writing, she would go home, see if what she had written had been any good, and start editing from there. She probably knew, like the rest of us, that first drafts are rough, and what she wrote first was just the starting point. She was writing what was coming into her head.
Write Something without Giving It an Audience
Like writing just to write—write something down knowing it’s just for you. There will come a time when you’re ready to show your writing in front of others for feedback, but that doesn’t have to be right away. Especially if you still want to get to a certain point and you’re having trouble getting there.
So if you can’t think of what to write for what you want to show others, write something that you won’t be pressured to make the best it could possibly be. This could be any sort of drabble, a random scene, an entirely new story, something that will get your creative brain going without overwhelming you.
So if you don’t know what to write next, temporarily stop what you’ve been working on to keep from burning out. Writing isn’t straightforward, and sometimes you have to move in different directions to get where you need to be, even if it feels like you’re going backwards. Like Maya Angelou, just keep getting up to write every morning, even if it means writing something other than what you intended.
Emma Foster is a fiction and blog writer and creator of Foster Your Writing. She currently writes articles for The Word Slayers and she is a prose reader for Farside Review. Her work can be found in Aurora Journal, Sledgehammer Lit, Your Daily Poem, and others. She also published her first microchap “Isosceles Triangles” with Origami Poems (2021). You can find her at https://fosteryourwriting.com/.