Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Writing { and reading and publishing } ~

How Do Writers Decide What To Write?

Even if you’re just writing a letter to a friend, you have to decide what to write… 

image by Zsuzsanna Kilian

image by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Writers under contract, like a hard-slogging journalist or a ghost-writer, are usually told what to write but have some control over how it’s written.

Those creating fiction have the opportunity to write whatever they want; though, deciding exactly what to write might be one of their greatest hurdles

A number of months ago, I started writing a new Fantasy short story every Friday.

I chose a rather unique method to decide the elements of each new story—drawing 5 cards from a deck created for the game Magic – The Gathering.

I put the titles of the cards on a Scapple board and move them around until a plot emerges

However, “what should I write?” can be pushed back to the more general question of “what do I want my writing to do?”

I found an engaging article on Jane Friedman’s blog called, What Do You Want From Your Writing in 2014—And Beyond?

Dan Holloway—poet, novelist, publisher, commentator, event organizer, and promoter—begins his article with:

“Do you know what you want from your writing?

“Yes? Good. Now take a pause, and a pen, and a piece of paper, and write it down. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.”

Naturally, most folks aren’t able to write down the purpose of their writing in one sentence in a few seconds

Dan goes on to share a number of methods to help writers clarify the underlying goal of their writing.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the article:

“If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?

“It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write? Only we think it doesn’t, because in our head we think we can separate them out. ‘I write because I have to’ is what most people will say, then continuing, ‘but I’d like to make a living.’

“That won’t do. Why you write is always the key to what you want from your writing.”

As Dan gets into the how-to-craft-your-writing-mission-statement, he brings up the importance of ending the process with a one-sentence elevator pitch.

He then organizes his thoughts into these topics:

Techniques for creating your one-sentence goal
The biggest enemy of goal setting: generality
When are you done with the process?
Crie de Coeur

He recommends brainstorming and mind-mapping, goes into detail about why being extremely specific is important, and, in the section on knowing when your done, he says:

“Imagine what it would be like if you achieved your goal. Often, the very fact that you can do this easily, or the trouble you find with such visualization, can be a clue as to whether or not this is actually what you want. Difficulty in visualizing what life would be like if you achieved your goal may mean that goal is still a little too general.”

All in all, Dan’s article is an exploration of a critical thinking process that every serious writer must perform if they want to avoid some of the nastier pitfalls of authorship

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10 responses to “How Do Writers Decide What To Write?

  1. penpusherpen January 22, 2014 at 5:33 am

    as I don’t presume to be a writer, Alexander, other than my poetic/whimsy doodling, I suppose, (and not having to make my living from the written word,) I have a haphazard attitude. I get ideas and they blossom, in their own time. My ‘pen’ seems attuned to my emotive state and need to share. Just like this comment . :-) xx


  2. danholloway January 22, 2014 at 7:23 am

    thanks so much for the link, Alexander. Very much looking froward to finding my way around your website


  3. Jane Watson January 22, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I really enjoyed Dan’s article. It truly made me think of what my Crie de Coeur is (and I love that phrase) :-) This reminded me of being told once : How can you get what you want in life, if you don’t know what that is? So how do I decide what to write? Well, unfortunately it is a very haphazard process – first of all I just write, then I read what I have written to find some image that seems to mean more than it at first appears to, and I try and dive into that image and see its connections and resonances. And all of which very vague and hard to express – which is why I appreciated the way Dan came to grips with being more focussed on what you are doing and where you are going :-)


  4. Alexander M Zoltai January 22, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Well, Pen, your single sentence could contain “getting ideas”, in a “desultory” way, and letting them “blossom”? :-)


  5. Alexander M Zoltai January 22, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Ah, Mr. Holloway!

    I appreciate your visiting as much as I appreciated your article

    Please, do, roam around here :-)


  6. Alexander M Zoltai January 22, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Well, Jane, there would seem to be no harm in extending Dan’s methods with the use of images—which you already do with your own mind-mapping, eh? :-)

    Plus, the right set of images could explicate, within the “space” of a single sentence, much more than mere words :-)


  7. penpusherpen January 22, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    fits me to a ‘t’ Alexander.


  8. Alexander M Zoltai January 22, 2014 at 12:39 pm



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