How to write when you’re not writing

If you think writing happens when you’re at the keyboard, you’re not thinking big enough.

Writing is problem-solving. A nonfiction writer has to solve problems like these:

  • What will my title (or subject line) be?
  • How will I start?
  • What relevant examples will I cite?
  • What stories will I tell?
  • How will I structure the content?
  • Is there a relevant framework I can use (three steps, five dimensions, or something like that?)
  • Is there an acronym or mnemonic I can use for that framework?
  • What are the key lessons from what I am writing?
  • What books, articles, reports, or studies can I cite for evidence to back up my claims?
  • What words and sentences will tell my story?

Only the last two items work best at a keyboard. The rest of these problems are potentially solved best when you’re doing something else — walking, cooking, socializing, reading, lying in bed, and so on.

Solving those problems requires thinking about them . . . and then not thinking about them. Creative solutions often occur to us when we’re doing something else.

How to write when you’re not writing

This is a skill you can work on. In fact, if you are a writer, it’s a skill you absolutely need.

If you have a writing project coming up and the deadline allows, give yourself at least a couple of days to think about it.

Write down the problems you’re going to need to solve, for example, what’s the structure, what stories will you tell, what’s the title, and so on.

Consider your best solutions to those problems. Maybe take some notes about those.

Now go off and do your usual work, but think about the problems from time to time.

If you’ve trained your brain well, the solutions will come to you at some point between when you consider the problems and the moment you need to start drafting.

The best writers are always writing, even when they’re not at a keyboard.

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  1. The late, great, wise and wonderful Charley Farley once said, “the relaxed mind is more prolific.” I believe that applies to writing/problem solving, too.