In this series, you’ve discovered more about yourself through writing—you may have begun to heal emotional wounds. The act of writing has helped you find the courage to continue to write. Through writing, you’ve articulated your reason for doing the work. And you’ve identified your top themes and topics. Most recently, you’ve written to discover your ideal reader.
Today, you’ll see how the act of writing—the process of writing any given project—can lead us to discover what we really want to say.
Discovery Writing to Unearth Ideas
Before we begin to outline or research, we can use writing to probe what is on our mind—to unearth what we want to say. An effective tool for this—and I’ve talked about it before—is freewriting.
I was introduced to the practice of freewriting in college, thanks to a book that was newly released at the time and used in two of my creative writing courses: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg.
Her invitation to freewrite—to set a timer for, say, ten minutes and write, pen to paper, without stopping—gave me a way to shimmy past my stifling editor-mind to what Goldberg calls “first thoughts.”1
Those first thoughts unleashed in me the memories, stories, images, and ideas that I hadn’t yet reached when I sat down to write using an outline. Over time, the practice generally led to my discovering what I really wanted to say in my next project—which, at the time, was usually a poem.
Freewriting While Composing the Draft
I still use freewriting as a tool to unstick my thoughts—often before even launching a new project. But freewriting can be also used while my writing is in-progress.
I can be busy writing a paragraph—sometimes even when I’m following an outline I’ve developed—and pause to go deeper with freewriting.
Priscilla Long agrees with this balance of writing into an essay form or structure while occasionally stepping away to further explore ideas and thoughts through freewriting. She refers to freewriting as “discovery writing” in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, where she says this:
[W]riting into a structure should be done in tandem with “discovery writing,” that is, writing to learn what you have to say, writing to work out your thoughts, writing to find out what your antagonist thinks (by writing from her point of view in your notebook, even though in the finished story you are never going to be in her point of view).2
In other words, when we need clarity, Long recommends we stop in the midst of writing to an outline or “template” and spend a few minutes freewriting. This avoids shallow treatment of our topic or story. Instead, we respect our mind’s hesitation and take time to discover what we really want to say.
After freewriting, we gain insight and turn back to the draft, adjusting our ideas as needed.
Determine and Draft Your Project’s Big Idea
Let’s say that you’ve spent a few minutes freewriting to determine what to write about. You’ve thought about it, you’ve researched, you’ve outlined. You have a good solid concept for this project.
When you’re ready to embark on the first words of your next project, determine and draft your project’s Big Idea.
What’s this piece about? What’s the focus? What’s the driving theme?
Articulating Your Working Thesis
Writing this out is a kind of discovery writing all its own—you’re trying to articulate a thesis.
Remember the thesis? Back in high school and college you were probably trained to express it as one sentence—a statement that is, in fact, arguable. A thesis can be used in fiction, nonfiction, and some poetry; it encapsulates what your project is about.
The thesis statement expresses the Big Idea of your project in that one sentence. You set out to explore and support this statement throughout the piece.
Your thesis establishes strong focus for the project from the start. A working thesis is flexible, though. The further you get into your research and writing, the greater the possibility your thesis will be tweaked to reflect how your ideas have morphed.
This simply means you’re refining your ideas through the writing process—once again, discovering what you really want to say through the work of writing.
Write that thesis—that Big Idea—as your first official act of articulating what you want to say. Plaster it across the top of your screen or notebook or Scrivener file to help you focus while knowing it can evolve as your ideas evolve.
Jack Hart’s Theme Statement
One way to go about it is what author and writing coach Jack Hart suggests in his book A Writer’s Coach. He writes what he calls a theme statement—it’s basically a thesis—at the top of the page. He assures the reader it doesn’t need to appear in the piece itself (though it could). Basically it helps the writer focus.3
He says to format it like this: subject, transitive verb, object.
EX: [SUBJECT] [TRANSITIVE VERB] [OBJECT]
[The myth of the perfect first line] [obscures] [the importance of focus and organization]4
So that sentence—“The myth of the perfect first line obscures the importance of focus and organization”—would appear at the top of his screen, to remind him where he’s headed.
Eric Maisel’s “Headline” Sentence
Creativity coach and author Eric Maisel recommends the same basic idea in his book Deep Writing:
In my experience, beginning writers and seasoned writers alike often do not take the time to articulate the idea for their current book in a simple sentence or two, even after the time when those few sentences could be articulated. This is a shame, because “headline” sentences of this sort can serve as a reminder, an anchor, even an affirmation throughout the writing process.5
He gets pushback from writers who argue that this step stifles the creative process and locks them in. In fact, trying to express the core idea of an entire book in one sentence, they say, seems limiting. “Besides,” he imagines the reader saying in response to this suggestion, “how could any single sentence do my idea justice?”6
But this is a kind of discovery writing. Expressing the essence of the idea forces limits and gives us a filter for our content. Because when we know what our project is about, we know what to include and what’s beyond its scope.
[A]rticulating your theme or idea in a sentence or two is a worthwhile suggestion, something to consider. To be able to do so may help you hold the intention to write and maintain motivation as you create…. [O]nce I could articulate the theme, however roughly and inadequately, I possessed a powerful reminder of the book’s purpose and intention. 7
Focusing with a Title and Subtitle
In addition to writing a thesis, theme sentence, or headline sentence that captures the essence of a project, I recommend you craft a working title and subtitle.
For longer projects like a book, a working title with a subtitle helps me “maintain motivation” as Maisel claims, because the title I reminds me why I set out to pursue this project for this particular reader.
My book Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families did just that. I came up with the working title and a friend suggested the subtitle. When I locked that in during the process of writing the draft, I always knew who the book was for (frenzied families) and what it was about (slow-down solutions).
If I land on a strong title and subtitle, I can get by without including my thesis at the top of the page, because the title forces me to discover what I’m saying. Generating a title serves the same goal as a thesis—for me, at least—of expressing the project’s purpose and intention.
Get Good at Writing Headlines
Headlines differ from titles and thesis statements. We craft a variety of headlines to land on one that will grab the reader and lure him in. Headlines work best for shorter pieces and that express what we’re really trying to say.
I once shared the story that Jon Morrow told in an interview of how he got a job working for Brian Clark, the founder of Copyblogger. Brian gave Jon an assignment early on when they started working together to write 100 headlines a day for different blog posts. Get really good at it, he said.
And Jon did. A month later, he went back to Brian with 3,000 headlines. Brian was astonished because he had given that assignment to other people, but only Jon followed through.
In fact, Jon continued the practice of writing 100 headlines a day so valuable he continued it for two years, seven days a week. He never took a day off. He wrote 36,400 headlines in one year, and at the end of two years, he’d written 72,800 headlines.
With all that practice and repetition, he got better and better at writing headlines. He also got really great at generating and vetting ideas that would entice and hold a reader’s interest—all because of the focus brought by the headline.
Finding the best headlines helped him discover what he really wanted to say.8
Ask: What am I trying to say?
At times we start to write and find that the work morphs before our very eyes. We can yank the words back into the structure and organization we’ve determined in advance and commit to our initial thesis. Or we can write our way into the piece as it shifts and turns.
That’s fine. That’s why we have a working thesis. And that’s why we ask ourselves focusing questions along the way.
In William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, he says:
The writer must therefore constantly ask himself: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly often, he doesn’t know. Then he must look at what he has written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, it is because some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is a person clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.9
Clarity comes as we ask that question: What am I trying to say?
As we ask and then move into that question with a sense of curiosity and openness, we see the fuzz. And then we become a clear-headed writer.
We feel the freedom to let our ideas and our project evolve for the sake of clarity and for the purpose of discovering what we really want to say.
As we write to discover what we really want to say, we’re learning to think—and to think clearly. “Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself,” Zinsser writes, “just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem.”10
Keep Writing to Discover What You Really Want to Say
Even with that clarifying question, a fog can set in.
We doubt our ideas.
The clarity and confidence we felt when we first set out blurs as we attempt to articulate the concepts in sentences and develop well reasoned paragraphs.
That fog will lift through the act of writing itself. We’ll find our ideas solidifying as we force ourselves to verbalize them on the page.
Through writing—getting our words out onto the screen or page—we thought we were heading one way only to realize we’re moving toward a different theme or opinion.
It doesn’t mean you’re waffling or ambivalent. It reflects how writing and thinking work together more intimately than we realized. The longer we write and see this occur, the more we may grow to trust writing as the means to probe our thoughts and arrive at the deeper meaning we intend.
Writing becomes a way to figure out what we really think.
When this happens, we relate to E.M. Forster, who is attributed as saying, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”11
Check Your Final Draft with the Big Idea
If you’ve expressed your Big Idea succinctly—in a thesis, sentence, title, or headline—and tweaked it along the way, you can use it to check your work.
When you’ve finished your draft and you’ve dug deeper and you’ve tweaked your working thesis, you can read your piece with that Big Idea in front of you. Have you fulfilled its promise? Have you answered its question? How well did you support its claim?
If your content doesn’t align with your thesis—your Big Idea—pull out a separate notebook and ask what you want to say—what you mean to say—and with any luck, you’ll discover what you really want to say.
This, I believe, is one of the greatest gifts of writing. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”12
Joan Didion, too, says, “I write entirely to find out what is on my mind, what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I’m seeing, and what it means,”13 and she said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”14
By writing, we discover what’s on our mind, what we’re thinking, what we’re looking at, and what it means.
By writing, we discover what we think.
By writing, we discover what we really want to say.
- The Writer at Work – Use Freewriting to Give It Some Thought [Ep 178]
- What’s the Big Idea? [Ep 46] (on developing a theme statement or thesis)
- Stop Waiting for Last-Minute Inspiration [Ep 50] (Jon Morrow writing headlines)
- Write to Discover – Start with Yourself [Ep 180]
- Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears [Ep 181]
- Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing [Ep 182]
- Write to Discover Your Top Themes & Topics [Ep 183]
- In a World of Author Branding…uh, What’s an Author Brand? [Ep 155]
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
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- Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Shambhala, 2010. Print. (4)
- Long, Priscilla, (80)
- Kroeker, Ann. “What’s the Big Idea?”
- Maisel, Eric. Deep Writing: 7 Principles That Bring Ideas to Life. J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. (36-37)
- Ibid (37)
- Ibid (38)
- Kroeker, Ann. “Ep 50: Stop Waiting For Last-Minute Inspiration.”
- Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. (9)
- This quote is attributed to E.M. Forster, as discussed in this thread and several other sites, but seems to have been a line Forster gave to a fictional character. http://emforster.de/hypertext/template.php3?t=thread&thread=145
- This quote is attributed to Flannery O’Connor, though the precise source is not indicated. My citation is this website: https://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2014/03/27/why-i-write-23-quotes-famous-authors/
- Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000. 169. Print. [Trimble includes a section at the back of the book called “Writers Talking Shop.” His source for the Didion quote follows: Joan Didion, “Why I Write,” a Regents’ Lecture at the U. of California at Berkeley, reprinted in The Writer on Her Work, ed. Janet Sternburg (New York: Norton, 1980), p. 20.]
- “Joan Didion Quotes (Author of The Year of Magical Thinking).” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/238.Joan_Didion.