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I suck at writing. There, I admitted it.

More often than not, I find my self staring at a blank moleskine page, or the blinking cursor. You see, the problem lies not in writing itself, but writing on a certain topic, or any topic for that matter. For example, "Why dogs make great pets". You could say, "Dogs make great pets because they're loyal, obedient, and aid mental illnesses". It seems easy enough, right? Well, with my creative writing skills, not so much.

At this point you're probably saying, "You just came up with a topic to write about, so what exactly is the problem?". Let me explain further.

I understand that writing is like any other skill. Meaning it can be learned, manipulated, and mastered. However, more often than not, I find myself extremely frustrated when I'm trying to write a blog post. I've read that most people can write a post in less that 20 minute, whereas I, take up to two hours to get no more than 250 words. That's bad, very bad and not productive. To be honest, it took me 57 minutes to write this short question. Why?

At this point, I've tried everything, from free writing to outlining. I just want to be able to write about anything, whether be it Justin Beiber (Yes, I am a belieber), or my new socks.

In brief, how can I effectively develop topics out of thin air without research, or spending hours before actually writing? Moreover, how can improve my creative side without spending hours brainstorming?

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possible duplicate of How to overcome the fact that I can't write? –  Pravesh Parekh Mar 20 at 9:09
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Consider looking at these similar questions: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/7589/… writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4785/… –  Pravesh Parekh Mar 20 at 9:10

8 Answers 8

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The problem I see with writing (and drawing) is that people believe that they should be able to do it without any training. We all learn to write in school, we all can compose a coherent narrative, for example in a letter to our grandparents or a "what I did during the summer holidays" essay for school, and we all have been drawing since we were able to hold a pencil. So we all can write and draw, yet when we sit down and want to write a novel or draw a likeness of our girl friends, we cannot. So we assume that we lack "talent" or some secret knowledge that we try to find in books on writing or drawing, creative writing courses, drawing DVDs, or ask for on the internet. And whatever people tell us, it does not give us this flash of divine inspiration. We feel like before, so we don't think that advice was the missing secret. So we buy more and more books on writing (or drawing), visit course after course, and in the end we give up and never draw or write again, because we believe we have finally understood that we don't have it in us to write or draw.

But in reality everyone can learn to write or draw. Maybe not everyone can draw like [insert the name of the artist you admire most] or write like [your favourite author], but we all can write and draw like the many people who make a living with drawing and writing.

If only we would heed the one advice that is being repeated by professionals of all fields over and over again since the beginning of time:

Practice!

And what is "practice"? Is it based on some secret knowlege of obscure Himalayian monks? Do you need this rare brush or expensive software that no-one who knows about it will tell you? No!

Practice is sitting on your chair and doing what you want to learn!

There is no mystery about it. Not secret to divulge. You know it all already. If you want to run a marathon, will you be able after having spent the last fifteen years on your sofa? No! Why do people understand that they have to train for sports, for speaking a foreign language, for driving a car or skateboard, for cooking, for a job, for anything, but expect to be able to write or draw immediately or not at all?!?

It is not a legend but a simple fact that the masters of any craft, from music to science to art, have put in thousands of hours of training before they achieved their level of mastery, so all you need to do to learn to be creative and have great ideas or to write well is to put in a few thousand hours into training. Write, write, and write. That is all the secret there is to writing well. Develop ideas, and keep developing them, for hours, weeks and months, and with time your ideas will get better.

It is extremely simple and straightforward. You need nothing, except stop to expect mastery to happen within the first fifteen minutes and give yourself time. The important ingredients are:

  • diligence and
  • patience

Your question has been asked a billion times on the net, and I recommend the same that I always recommend to similar questions:

Make writing a habit.

  • identify the times that you have time to write (e.g. half an hour every evening before you go to bed, on the train to work, in your lunch hour, sunday before church, ...)
  • make that your writing time
  • perceive writing similarly to a job: do it, no matter what
  • to begin, write whatever comes to mind
  • quality does not matter, the only important thing is that you write
  • again, perceive it like a job: you are doing time, it does not matter how much you write or what the quality of your writing is, write like you work on a job you hate while your boss is watching you: just do it, pretend, etc.
  • it takes twenty to thirty days to build a habit, so keep at it one month before you evaluate your practice
  • after some time (depends on how regularly you write, for how long, and your basic creativity) you will begin to have ideas and a story (or whatever you aim for) will develop

Craig Sefton gives some additional (and better phrased) tips in his answer to another question.

There's this fantastic book by psychologist Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot. It is about academic writing, but that does not matter. In this book, Silvia studies how successful writers (like Stephen King) work and distills their practice into his tips (which I briefly outlined above). There are many writers that Silvia does not mention in his book, but whenever I read how they work, they all do the same: they set a fixed daily time that they sit down to write, not matter what. They never wait for creativity to happen, they just fill the blank page with words. Just write what you think, or what you see out the window, or what you just did, or what you will do after you are done, or whatever, and after about fifteen minutes of this "warming up", ideas start to happen.

Have fun!

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I agree with you statement, "Make writing a habit". However, If I'm not writing effectively, then I'm just reinforcing bad habits. But in my case, I guess that the first step is just to build the habit, and tweak my writing from that point. Does that sound right? –  user8256 Mar 22 at 3:16
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I edited my question to address your "however". The problem that you have is this "however". Stop giving yourself excused to not write and just do it. If after a month of writing half an hour every day you see no change, come back and I'll refund you ;-) And I'm serious: if you don't try my advice, you don't have the right to "however". If you try, there will be no however. –  what Mar 22 at 17:16
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With regards to making writing a habit, this may help you: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2100/… –  Craig Sefton Mar 26 at 20:54
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Thanks, @CraigSefton, I linked to your answer in mine. –  what Mar 27 at 5:45

I've found the best solution to improving creative productivity is to practice self-discipline.

Discipline is also a skill, so it will take time to find a routine that works for you. Find an hour or so in which you believe you're the most productive and set it aside exclusively for writing, eliminate any distractions or commitments. Every day, go to your 'work station' and start writing. If you do this repeatedly, you'll find that your creative flow will improve.

By introducing a form of stability into your workflow, you're allowing your brain to prepare for a creative session. You're essentially telling yourself, "this is the time to be creative."

Don't be precious about words. If you want to write for a particular topic then make a list of points you'd like to hit or quickly list your thoughts on that subject. You don't need to start with a complete thought and at this point nothing you write needs to make sense. What matters is that killing the horrible anxiety that a blank page brings. Once you've emptied yourself of those initial thoughts, start rambling about a point that piques your interest.

Your writing skills will improve with time and your ability to write complete pieces within a given period of time will also improve as you grow confident in your abilities. Keep reading. Keep writing. There are no shortcuts for mastering this particular skill.

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You identify two problems in your question.

One is "how can I effectively develop topics out of thin air without research, or spending hours before actually writing?" This is a "what to write about" question, which is not on-topic for Writers. (Plus, there's no such thing as "developing topics without research." You may have done the "research" by reading 40 issues of Tiger Beat, but that's still research. If your problem is "how do I research a topic so I can organize my thoughts and write about it?" then ask that.)

The other is that you struggle to get words to paper. So the real issue here is why? Are you afraid of writing the "wrong" word? Are you afraid that you'll put it down and it won't look right or read well?

Conversely, if you were asked to sit down and chat with a friend about a random topic, do you have the same issues of coming up with spontaneous content?

If spontaneous content (why is Justin Bieber's hair that particular shade in that photo?) is not a problem for you when speaking, then you're "making the perfect the enemy of the good," and there are other questions here you could read to help you with that kind of writer's block.

If the problem is that you literally can't think of the word, any word, like "literally," then that may be a wiring problem beyond the scope of Stack Exchange.

You have to determine what's getting between your brain and your fingers first before we can suggest a solution.

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Your response allowed my to narrow the issue, at least part of it. Getting words on to paper is not the most difficult part for me, it's organizing the information once I have something to work with, trying to make my writing flow in a way that it's clear on what I'm trying to say. –  user8256 Mar 22 at 3:25

I think your main problem may be that you're sitting down to write without the following:

A PURPOSE

Quite often, for an article, you're simply looking for an "angle". Angles don't just spontaneously come to us. We "look" for them.

When I'm assigned to write about something particular, I research it, and I try to find an angle within the actual subject.

I wrote an article about this pretzel brand, and in my research, I found out that the back story behind the company and its name was very interesting, but not well known, so I had my angle.

Once you have a topic and an angle, you have a purpose. Write the first sentence. The first sentence should hook the audience. By the end of the first paragraph, the audience should know your angle. Now, write the rest of the article.

With practice, you'll find new angles even in old topics.

Musicians often call their own voice mail to hum a tune that was in their head. This doesn't happen to most folks. However, if you were a musician, you'd have tunes in your head too.

Instead, of tunes, writers get story ideas in their heads. Keep a notepad and jot down story ideas as you "discover" them. You'll find that the more you write them down, the more you'll get.

Stay tuned in. Keep up to date on current events. Read. Watch. Listen. Ideas spawn other ideas.

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I think you're just worrying too much about the act of writing itself. Just have confidence in what you're doing, and sit down and enjoy yourself. Of course, you need strong fundamentals for that (sizable vocabulary, good grammar, and a knowledge of what you are writing about).

If you're having trouble developing your creative skills, then I'd recommend you read 'Daily Rituals: How Artists Work' by Mason Currey. It's a good read, if nothing else, and provides valuable insights into how the greats used to unleash their creativity (one writer filled his drawer with writing apples so that he could write, and another actually made a round of the block before sitting down to write and after). The point of this book is that different people work in different ways, and most of them have one thing in common: Consistency. They wrote a lot, and formed strong associations with their triggers for creativity. That, in a sense, was their shortcut.

You said you've tried everything already, but have you tried just doing nothing? Turn off your television (from Stephen King), chuck away your iPhone and iPad. You will find that your creative output will increase greatly. I'm an Engineering student, and I find that when I have too much work, I have a lot of dreams that are worth writing about (I'm desperately bored at times).

Creativity isn't just about discipline: It's also about being able and willing to form new associations. Do an exercise with me: Take an apple, a pencil, or any object you can think of, then sit down and try to write as many words you can associate with it in one minute. The obvious would be red, juicy, fragrant, lunch. The not-so-obvious would be death (think of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. I know, the exact species wasn't specified in the Good Book), roast (roasted pig with an apple in its mouth), throat (Adam's apple), paper bag (the thing we usually place apples in), and destruction (an apple is capable of causing destruction to an anthill).

At the end of the day, the only real solution is to love writing. Love it, and be captivated by it.

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The "without investing too much time" part could be a little problematic, depending on what you mean by that. In my experience (and contrary to what a lot of people believe), creativity is something you practice. That means two things:

  1. It is going to take some time to get good at. Maybe a lot of time. In this sense, there is no getting around the amount of time you'll need to invest.
  2. But since it is something you practice, you don't have to get good at it all at once. You can write for 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes, or an hour -- whatever you have at your disposal and feels comfortable to you. In this sense, it doesn't take much time at all. Your small daily efforts add up over time, and eventually you find it doesn't take much effort at all.
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I know that all skills, including writing, takes time to become proficient. However, I become easily discouraged when I realized that it has taken me an hour to write something, that could have been completed in the fraction of the time. A simple example, tying your shoes. It shouldn't take one 30 minutes to complete that task, it should take no less than 30 seconds. Do you see my issue now? –  user8256 Mar 22 at 3:23
    
I do, but keep in mind that when you first started tying your shoes, you couldn't accomplish it in 30 seconds. It really did take a long time. But you did it every day for so long that it became second nature to you. Being creative is the same way. At first, you're paralyzed to inaction. But you push through and just get SOMETHING done, even if it isn't up to your own standards. And eventually you get better and better at it, and it takes much less effort. –  Charlie Kilian Mar 22 at 19:40

Your main problem/complaint seems to be that your thoughts don't automatically organize themselves. Take comfort. You are normal. Try the following (in order):

1) First, just get ideas down. I like to use FreeMind for this phase, and also a spiral-bound notebook that has no purpose except to jot down ideas. Note that "jotting down an idea" can run on for a while, several pages sometimes, but it is still very rough. This is the research and ideating phase.

2) Turn your FreeMind diagram and your jotted-down ideas into an outline. It is VERY important to outline in the proper manner. You do NOT write I, then A, then 1., then a., then 1), etc. Nooooo! You write I, II, III, IV, etc. Only then do you go back and put in A, B, C, etc. for your main points. And so on as you get more and more detailed. You do NOT try to flesh out the skeleton until you've got the whole skeleton. Otherwise, you lose the forest for the trees (sorry, mixing my metaphors here) and you get bogged down in a slough of despond (literary allusion, Google it). This is the organizing phase.

3) After you've got a nice detailed outline, then start writing sentences for each sub-point. You can also start pulling in paragraphs you may have in your "jotting-down" notebook. You might also want to talk against your outline, using a speech-to-text program. Don't stop to fix any mistakes in the machine transcription. Don't even look at it. Just keep talking. This is the "crappy first draft" stage.

4) Go back and do a first edit of what you've go so far. At this point, you're just trying to make it coherent. Don't worry about the perfect word or turn of phrase.

5) Go away from what you just wrote. Do something else.

6) Come back and do a final edit.

7) Post it; mail it; turn it in to the teacher. You'll never make it perfect.

One last note: Obviously, depending on the length and importance of your final written whatever, you can speed through some of these steps. But this should be your standard operating procedure.

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You say, "I understand that writing is like any other skill. Meaning it can be learned, manipulated, and mastered."

You left out having a capability for the "skill" to begin with. Sorry to say it, but you sound like the last person who should be thinking of becoming a writer.

Is it novels and short stories you want to write? Or just faster emails? All the writers I know knew they wanted to write from childhood. They read endlessly and continue to this day accumulating books in one form or another, usually reading for hours a day.

AND they took all the writing courses their schools offered and got to know at least a few professors personally. Writers typically (in my experience) have circles of friends who are also compulsive about writing.

Writing is an extension of thinking. It's also a way of life. There are certainly skills involved, but first the writer is driven to write, thinks about it all of the time and has a natural inclination for storytelling.

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I would like to add that I'm not looking to become some prolific writer, I am looking to hone in on what exactly is giving me trouble when it comes to writing. –  user8256 Mar 29 at 1:26
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I don't agree with this. All skills can be improved, even without having an innate capability. You may get a better head start by having "talent", but nothing beats practising in the long run. Anyone who wants to write should have a go at at it, and not be told that they "sound like the last person who should be thinking of becoming a writer". –  erikric Apr 7 at 9:47

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