Ep 188: Write to Discover What You Really Want to Say
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,