When I Am Puzzled By What To Write, I Do This

The problem: Nothing adds up

Thoughts are like puzzle pieces. Taken by themselves, each thought doesn’t really add up to much. It’s just a single puzzle piece.

But when those puzzle pieces start to fit together, miracles happen.

Ordinarily, we go around with our heads full of miscellaneous thoughts. When we sit down to write, it’s not obvious where we should begin. Of the dozens and hundreds of puzzling thoughts available, which is the one to begin from?

What do we really want to say? We want to have clarity. We want to be able to boil it down to the essentials.

Sometimes the essentials feel too simple. They’re not enough to really write about. Somehow, we need to say more.

The solution: Unpack what you have

  • The mind is full of thoughts
  • Those thoughts are like a bunch of miscellaneous puzzle pieces
  • We need to lay out all the pieces onto the table so we can see them and sort them
  • Then we can put together the puzzle

It sounds counterintuitive to say that you should begin to write before you know what you’re going to say, right?

Well, would you want to try to put together a puzzle without first laying out all the pieces so you can see them?

If you want to put together a puzzle you need to first lay all the pieces onto the table, turn them to face the right way, and maybe even grouping them — corner pieces, edge pieces, and sorting them by background color.

Writing can be the same way.

Let yourself flow. Write without stopping, without any judgment. Write before you know what you’re going to say.

When you freewrite, you engage the process so that it works in your favor.

When you have words on the page, you have something to work with.

It’s about giving your ideas some breathing room. Putting them all on the page, just as they are. Not perfect, not in the right order.

This isn’t to guarantee that it’s always going to be easy. But freewriting is the most efficient way of getting where you need to go with a piece of writing.

Unbox the puzzle, then sort

1. Write without stopping for ten or twenty minutes and then stop to see what you have.

2. Reading back through, seek out the best stuff and forget about the rest. It’s OK that some of the writing isn’t usable. Far better to spend that ten or twenty minutes freewriting than sitting and deliberating.

Different ways to organize your ideas

Once you have a few pages of material, you can group different ideas according to

  • theme or topic — find patterns and group together similar things
  • chronology — when one occurs in relation to others
  • difficulty — easy to hard, simple to complex; one aspect might even build upon the ones before it. To teach something, it may work best to first introduce some core concepts and then build on them
  • problem / solution(s) — illustrate the problem and then explore possible solutions

Not everything from your freewrite will fit. When you read back through your freewrite, it can feel like discovering that not all the puzzle pieces actually even belong to the same puzzle. Some of them belong to your laundry list. Some are just pocket lint.

The more you freewrite, the more you can see the puzzle pieces you’re carrying around.

You get better at sorting your thoughts and feelings.

Sometimes it happens that you can blurt everything out and it all comes out perfectly in the first try.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sorting.

By taking ten or twenty minutes to freewrite, you get time to work in your favor. Resist judging what you write until after the time limit is up. Then, go back and pull the best pieces from your freewrite. You can use those pieces to build a better, more polished puzzle.

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