Every writer hears the mantra: “Write what you know.”
The heck with that. What fun would it be if we only wrote what everyone already knew?
Try writing to figure out what you want to know. In other words,
Write before you know what you’re writing about.
If you shut down the inner planner, editor and critic, the act of writing strengthens your connection with a topic. It gives the creative part of your brain a chance to explore and discover.
Writing as a Gateway to Discovery
Writing for discovery is an established part of my writing process.
When starting a blog post, white paper, or chapter of a book, I’ll create a file. I include labels likeTemp, Notes, or Freewriting in the filename, to signal to myself that the contents will never see the light of day. Then I start writing whatever comes to mind. Doing this work makes me more productive when it’s time to write the draft.
When you’re writing for discovery, you cannot stop to linger over word choices. Don’t censor yourself. Just write. Write as quickly and fluidly as possible, whether you’re typing or writing by hand.
Commit to writing for a period of time (say, 15–20 minutes) or some number of words. The first few minutes may come easily, but eventually you exhaust your readily-available thoughts on the topic. That’s when things get interesting.
As you keep writing, other parts of your brain chip in with ideas. You may discover insights or related ideas to explore.
If you run out of steam, put yourself on the spot by asking yourself questions. Type out the question, then answer yourself.
Mark Levy describes a variety of freewriting techniques in his book Accidental Genius. I’ve drawn inspiration from those. Personally, I prefer typing on a laptop. Others prefer pen and paper. Roger C. Parker tells me that he draws mind maps when he brainstorms. That works, too. Dictating into a voice recorder might even work.
Find whatever technique you works well to start exploring your topic.
Then the Magic Happens
I can’t tell you exactly what will happen, because it’s different every time.
- Maybe you’ll come upon a new insight — something that hadn’t occurred to you before.
- You might get ideas for further research, or uncover connections with other topics.
- Even if you’re not happy with the notes you’ve come up with, you’ve put your brain to work on the topic. If you ponder the topic again later, while taking a walk or driving, you may find answers or insights that didn’t occur to you before.
The act of writing sets your brain working. This is why you hear the advice to “just write” again and again from writers.
If you don’t already have a structured process of writing for discovery, try it on your next writing project. The day before you want to start drafting, set aside 15 minutes, or as long as it takes to write 750 words. Write freely on your subject, without any concern for format, flow, style, grammar, anything. Then let it sit overnight.
The next day, when you sit down to write, see if it comes any easier, or if you have ideas for different approaches.
Other Secrets of Crazy-Productive Writers
This is the second post in a series about the writing process; the first post is about productive procrastination. I plan to publish one writing productivity post every Friday, until I run out. You can find them all here: http://annejanzer.com/writing-2/
Let me know if you want to share your personal brainstorming process.