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In July of 1943, painter Jackson Pollock signed a contract with the Guggenheim for an exhibition. By November, he hoped he would have the signature piece ready: a mural so large it could cover an entire wall.
There was just one problem. Inspiration wouldn’t strike.
Under tight pressure, Pollock could only stare at the canvas. He would get up, stare at the canvas, and make zero progress.
This period lasted weeks. Not even a dot of paint.
Finally, he says, he had a vision of a stampede in the American West. He set about painting and apparently completed it in one obsessive and energetic spurt.
Most of us think this is how the creative process works. We wait for the muses, or a bolt of lightning, to do the work for us. And sometimes—as it did for Pollock—inspiration does strike.
But good luck finishing a novel that way.
Writing can be a little bit different. And it’s no less art if you explore effective writing strategies for when you feel like Jackson Pollock yourself—sitting in front of a blank page and hoping a vision inspires you. But if you have a few effective strategies to use, you don’t have to wait on creative inspiration (because we all know it can be fickle).
Effective Writing Strategies: What Are They?
One quick note: Writing strategies are tools in your toolbox. There’s no hard rule that you have to pick one and stick with it until your story or article is finished. Feel free to use whatever works on any given day.
Any ideas you use to try to spark your imagination can be types of good writing strategies. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says he often writes jokes by sitting down and waiting for something good—he views it as forcing his brain to come up with something. You don’t get to do anything fun until you come up with one good joke. The same was apparently true of Pollock.
It’s one system, but it’s not for everybody. And not every technique has to be so discipline-intensive. Let’s explore some writing and prewriting strategies that can get the creative juices flowing without staring at the blank page for days at a time.
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Strategies for Getting Your Pen to the Paper
Prewriting Before You Write
Before we tackle specific examples of writing strategies, let’s step back. Take the pressure off the physical act of putting pen to paper. You don’t have to spring to life like Jackson Pollock to eventually come up with something good. Get yourself in the swing of things by employing prewriting.
What is prewriting? It’s anything you put on paper that isn’t the work itself, such as:
- Stream-of-consciousness. Put yourself in the head of a character and write down the first thoughts that come to you, even if they have nothing to do with a story.
- Asking questions. Rather than pulling your hair trying to come up with something great, get the juices flowing by asking questions. “What’s the best way to begin this story?”
- Jotting down single words or concepts. Prewriting is all about lowering the pressure on yourself. Don’t write a sentence; write a single word. Start connecting them. What feeling do you want the reader to have? What is a single-word image that captures that?
Strategy #1: Start Writing Hook Material First
One strategy for getting the pen to the paper is to zoom in. Focus only on the first sentence. What is the most engaging possible first sentence you can write?
Call this the “writing the hook” strategy. Don’t emphasize the 300 pages you have to fill. Don’t think about “The End.” Think only of the most intriguing problem to start your story.
Distill it down to one line. Chances are that when you have a good one, the rest of the page will come spilling out. After all, what are writing strategies if not simply tools to get yourself going?
If you get stuck here, try to think of the story you wanted to tell. Then flip that on its head: how can you start with a problem that a character has to solve first? It doesn’t have to be anything major. Consider the opening to James Joyce’s Ulysses:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Right away, we have a character who wants to achieve something: a clean shave. The rest of the story begins unfolding from this small detail.
Strategy #2: Start Writing Structure First
Let’s bring it back to the painting analogy. There are two ways of starting: small, detailed sketches of intricate details and big primary colors that lay down the foundational work.
In writing structure, you’re laying down those big, broad strokes. Now’s the time to think about the structure first. What story do you want to tell? Why does it matter? What does your main character lose if they don’t confront the issues of the story?
It’s perfectly okay to borrow from existing story structures. George Lucas famously borrowed from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
You can run through the movie and see every step there. Hero’s Refusal of the Call? Luke turns down an offer from Obi-Wan and says he has to stay on Tatooine. Belly of the Whale? Luke eventually ends up in the Death Star, in the heart of the Empire’s power.
You might think this approach can be an impediment to creativity. But remember that most stories have been told before, to one degree or another. Your creativity isn’t in discovering a new color. It’s an end result that feels wholly original.
Strategy #3: Don’t Start at the Beginning
In the opening scene of the classic TV series Breaking Bad, we don’t meet Walter White as he begins the story.
The premise of Breaking Bad is simple: Walter White is an everyday chemistry teacher who has to turn to a life of crime to pay for his hospital treatments.
But the TV series doesn’t begin with an everyday chemistry teacher.
The series begins in the desert. Walter White is in an RV—in his underwear and a gas mask, no less—and fleeing in desperation. What’s he fleeing? Where did his clothes go? What’s with the gas mask?
The pilot episode rewinds the clock and eventually unpeels the layers of this onion, bit-by-bit.
Sometimes you don’t have to start at the beginning. You can find an engaging detail about your story and flash forward to it. Once you’ve got your reader’s attention, then you can start unspooling the threads that led to it.
Strategy #4: Use the Conversation Method
Consider this a form of “prewriting,” but one that may help you lay out an outline for the writing itself.
Sit down with your preferred writing instrument—whether that’s a pen or a laptop—and imagine yourself describing your story to someone else. Write it as a dialogue, a conversation. You’re describing your ideal novel to a friend.
Your friend will ask questions. “Well, why doesn’t the main character just do such-and-such?”
You start writing the replies. Some questions may stump you. Others may spark your imagination. Either way, you’ve stopped staring at the blank page. Now you’re writing—and if your story has legs, chances are you’ve learned new things about your story from tearing it apart from the reader’s point of view.
The key to the “Conversation” method? Like all good writing strategies, it gets you moving without much resistance. You’re not even working on the story yet! You’re just putting the pen to paper.
And once you come up with a response to your reader’s questions, you’ve solved a miniature problem that may have been preventing you from writing. As you do so, don’t be surprised if inspiration finds you.
Strategy #5: Mind-Map Your Story
Of all the writing strategies examples on this list, this one is the one you can use in just about any area of life.
If you’re not familiar with mind-mapping, it’s a process of starting with big, high-concept ideas and isolating the small details that branch off from this concept.
For example, let’s say you have a story idea. You’re writing about a young girl overcoming a disability. That’s all you have. Write that in the center.
Next, write the high-level questions that arise from this. What is the disability preventing her from doing? What does she most want in the world?
You’ve got two branches now.
Focus on one. What does she want most in the world? Maybe she wanted to be a research scientist. Maybe she wanted to be an Olympic athlete. Write whatever strikes you.
Remember: There’s no pressure here. You’re just mapping out potential ideas for your story.
Once you get three or four branches deep, you’ll notice that you’ve changed the story. It’s no longer a generic idea; it has specific details that open up all sorts of possibilities. By zooming in from the big to the small, you’ve created a grocery list of potential jumping-off points for your story.
Making Good Writing Strategies Work for You
We’ve tackled a few established types of writing strategies so far—mind-mapping, the Hero’s Journey, writing the hook first—but you’ll notice that they all share one thing in common: You’re doing something.
Even Jackson Pollock was doing something while looking at that canvas. He wasn’t down in the street, ordering a hot dog from a vendor. He was upstairs with his canvas.
Ultimately, sitting down and thinking is the first writing strategy. You can use anything on this list to build momentum. But ultimately, writing is a process that requires your presence. Find the strategy that gets your creative juices flowing—and commit to staying there until you’ve got your first page.
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