How Do Writers Know What They Want to Write About?

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March 26 2014 7:37 AM

How Do Writers Know What They Want to Write About?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Ellen Vrana, writer, blogger:


This is the approach I use to generate content and ideas.

I’m an essayist. (Although I prefer “woman of letters”—can we start that?) My writing is less than 5,000 words. I will write longer someday and will use this approach; it’s served me well.

Step 1: Write what you know.

My No. 1 rule.

Write topics you know—Charles Dickens couldn’t have written Jane Austen and Austen couldn’t have written Dickens. They wrote the world and people they each knew. I’m not going to write a book on Peruvian potato farmers, but being a U.S. immigrant in London? You bet. It got easier when I stopped trying to write things I thought I should write (business) and started to write things I could write (self-reflection).

If you want to write about something that you don’t know about, experience it, learn about it, understand it. Then write if it feels right.

Write in the style you know. I’m from the Midwest, and I read a bit and I grew up watching Britcoms. Thus, my style is not-erudite. I insert the occasional intellectual tidbit for fun, and I love irony (highbrow way of saying I’m sarcastic).

Step 2: Read a lot and read aggressively

Read with the intent to learn and to stimulate your creative brain. Mark up the books, circle interesting things, talk out loud. This is not relaxing reading: You want to reread paragraphs 12 times because you were day-dreaming. Let your brain meander.

I have three to four books and jump back and forth. I have a pen, a highlighter, and a notebook. I shut off interactions. I’m introverted so can’t think well when interrupted by someone else. (I can work around others, though.) If you work better in a group or public, do what you need. I wrap in a blanket and make a pot of tea (physical comfort is key, too).

I pick writers whose styles I like, who tell stories that trigger my thoughts, and who teach me new things. Today, I had Pauline Kael, Anthony Trollope, London Times, and Tina Fey’s book open at once. It is chaos. But from that come little ideas and then big ideas.

It takes practice, but if you do it well, it feels like flow.

Step 3: Write it down, all of it, then make sense.

I read and take gibberish notes. To bring order, I use a notebook that I divide in sections.

In the first section, I write ideas on topics. For example, something caught my attention recently that was a reimagined fairy tale. I’ve always wanted to do a reimagined take on The Metamorphosis. I wrote that down. I brainstormed the idea of becoming mute (I fear I’ll run out of things to say) then asked what effect that would have on others—could they understand me? I wrote this down. Now, it's an idea.

I come back to these things later, rework where they could go, ponder, see if I can take it somewhere. If I can’t, I let it go. (It’s in the notebook, so I can return.)

If I’m on a roll and the story takes shape, I abandon the books, take out my computer, and write the actual piece. I write until my brain runs out of thoughts.

In the second section of the notebook, I write down words and phrases. Today, I wrote down “luminal.” I loved it. And the phrase “shoveling it on,” which I found funny. Perhaps I will couple it with something that is delicate to make it even better. All things I read or heard.

I write down things that fit my content and my style.

Step 4: Solicit and listen to feedback.

Audiences tell you what to write. And guess what, if you’re good at writing about something, you will like writing about that something a lot more.

Quora has been amazing because through my practice blog, The Runcible Goose, I’ve gotten comments and feedback on what I can do and what I cannot. 

People ask why anyone would write for free on Quora, and I say, Hell, why do people review for free? Don’t care, they do. And I’m milking it! Super smart (and opinionated) people can offer feedback, so take advantage.

Step 5: Iterate Steps 1–4

I started doing this a bit ago, and I was crap. No thoughts, no ideas, no order, nothing. I can improve a lot in generating, testing, and improving thoughts (and writing, obviously), but I’m better than I was, and I improve the more I practice.

Writing is personal, so find your own way. One thing that is fundamentally true, however, is you have to put yourself in the right mental and physical state to unleash what’s in your brain. To connect with that flow, do whatever it takes and the ideas will suggest themselves to you. Then, just write them down.

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