How to write when you've got nothing to say

I was never prolific. I used to spend hours staring at a blank screen bleeding words like blood from a stone which I would end up deleting the next day. Why? Because I made the mistake of thinking that writing was all about producing words.

Well, it is about producing words, but only in so much as that's the medium we've chosen in which to convey our ideas. Words with nothing behind them are meaningless.

Now when I sit down to write I never have enough time to get down what I need to. Every minute I spend at the keyboard I've got words coming out as fast as I can type them, and that's not because I'm producing pantsesque stream of consciousness stuff, it's because I've got a conveyor belt of ideas shunting stuff forward.

But it wasn't always so. Here's what I learnt the hard way.

Ground work

You need to start working that story before you sit down to write it. You know you've got a big scene to start when you get home from your job, so spend lunchtime thinking about it. Questions are a good way to activate your imagination. What is going to happen in this scene? Why is it going to happen? What do my characters think about it and how will they react?

Go crazy with your thinking

Ideas are cheap, especially when you're not doing 'proper writing' – by which I mean staring at your manuscript. So when you're sitting there at lunch with your chosen recording tool, give free rein to your ideas – you can always delete them afterwards, but that crazy idea just might be the one thing that will raise your story from the mediocre to the magnificent.

Have an ideas notebook

In which you write everything down. Not just ideas for the current WIP, but anything that comes to you. Goes without saying, right?

Have at least two projects on the go

Then if you've dried up on the one, you can go to work on the other.

There's always something else to do

Writing involves a whole heap of stuff – creating ideas, capturing them, crafting, editing, critiquing, researching agencies and publishers, learning about the craft – there's always something to do if your imagination goes AWOL. There's really no excuse not to write, and chances are when you start editing that other story that's been in the drawer for a while, you'll start activating ideas for the WIP too.

Let's get to it.


  1. Excellent advice, James. I had a period in the summer where I did a lot of freelance magazine editing and it did my WIP the world of good. I would come home with sheaves of notes written on the reverse of page proofs - and because I couldn't immediately sit down and use the first idea, it gave me proper time for the story to develop.
    Writing is in two parts, really. There's typing, and then there's the stuff in your head all the time. Sometimes it's good to deny one of them access to the other.

  2. Excellent advice. I definitely have to pre-think what I'll write during a session, otherwise I'd drive myself crazy. Thanks for the tips!

  3. I agree. I live off of storyboarding and chapter outlines. I need all the prep in order to not get lost or distracted when the real pen-to-paper (or rather fingers-to-keyboard) writing begins.

  4. This post pretty much summarizes all of the things I've been thinking about the past few weeks. I think the most important thing to do before you write is to just sit and think about the story, and give your characters a chance to speak their minds in their own voices, without worrying about that pesky author trying to intervene.
    Fantastic advice, and fantastic blog! It's almost like an online writer's manual...incredible.

  5. @Roz - it's easy to be seduced by the typing side of writing isn't it? A comically high daily word-count can feel like some kind of validation, but without thought, imagination and magic behind it, it's just toilet paper. Although, Kerouac managed it with On the Road.

    @Julie - thanks for your support. Hope your writing isn't driving you too crazy and it's going well.

    @jennifer - glad you're liking the blog, jennifer, because I'm liking yours. Keep up the good work.

    @Kim - hey Kim, thanks for dropping by and taking the time to read and comment, and welcome to the blog. I'm delighted you're liking it - it means a lot when some of my thoughts and experiences are of use to other writers


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