“Daily writing tips…” a student may be reading wistfully. “Oh, I’d be happy if my main need was tips for improving my writing. But I have to write a paper for school, and I don’t even know what to say. I can’t even get motivated to start.”
This kind of writer’s block – the lack of an interesting topic – is most common among students, but it’s not exclusive to them. Surprisingly, it’s also common among professional writers.
You see, most of us face the blank paper (or the black screen) with some kind of motivation already in our heads.
- If you’re a business owner working on a flier or brochure for your business, you have a keen awareness of why you are writing: to increase your sales. You may not be sure of how to begin or how to end, but somewhere in the middle, you’ll be on firm ground. Obviously, you already know quite a lot about your business, and with the right encouragement, you should be able to tell me in detail about your product or service.
- If you’re an office worker writing a report for his boss or a letter to a customer, you hopefully have a good sense of why you’re doing it. You may not be confident about your wording, but you know what you’re talking about, or else your boss wouldn’t have given you the assignment. Similarly, you probably know more about your job than your customer does, and though you may not know the best way to communicate your message to the customer, you do have a message: “Unfortunately, we are unable to refund your payment…” or “We are pleased to enclose a refund check for your payment…”
What do the business owner and the office worker have in common? They have an audience for their writing, fixed in their minds. As we’ve said before, audience is everything. The more clearly you can imagine your customer (or your potential customer), the better your writing will be, the more products you will sell, the more likely your customer will come back to buy more.
So what do the poor student and the poor freelance writer have in common? They don’t have an audience in mind. They don’t know who they’re writing to, so they don’t know what their audiences needs or wants to hear. The student can’t get excited about his upcoming term paper because he can’t imagine that it will ever be read by anyone he cares about. Not many teenagers have enough self-confidence to tell their friends, “Here’s my latest history exam. Don’t you think it’s brilliant?” In my article How to Start Writing When You Don’t Feel Like It, I suggested pretending that your teacher is a fan of your writing – or a fan of you. It helps a lot if he or she really is. Or pretend that you’re writing for someone else who is interested in your subject – or interested in you.
How about the poor freelance writer who doesn’t know what to write about? Successful writers point out that hunger is a great motivator. I suspect that some of the great authors I read in school would have never written anything if they hadn’t needed the money. But the topic, the topic, how do I choose a topic, you ask? Many pages have been written about what writers should write about.
Some of the best advice (remember that great motivator?) is to look at the subject matter or articles and books that have already sold, and write about that. Editors really wish you would. Actually having read the magazine you’re supposedly writing for, before you submit your article, would save them the trouble of sending another rejection letter saying, “We are unable to publish your article, ‘Fun Games You Can Play on Your Pocket Calculator,’ a topic we have never even remotely covered. But since you have obviously never read our magazine, you wouldn’t know that.”
On a deeper level, if you don’t know what to write about, write about what you know. Write about what you care about. Write for the people you care about. Imagine your reader, and the words may start to flow.