Write What You Want To Know

old map

Questions come in all sizes. There’s the age-old: where did I put my keys? The hometown fav: are you really going to wear that? And the esoteric: who would I be if I could be anyone?

I’ve been pondering questions and how, as a writer, I can use them to my advantage.

 Are questions good guideposts?

I think about questions a lot. They can be so helpful to both the writer and the reader. As a reader, a complicated question will get my brain busy and give me something to chew on. As a writer, trying to answer too many questions will make my head hurt. But knowing the right question to focus on, can be like a map for my story.

Many of you know how much we love our limitations at Story Mode and that this philosophy serves us well for writing (as well as for other creative endeavors). Writers are often limited by word count or deadlines. We like to use a 3-minute timer for early drafts. Are there other restrictions we can use to get our writing work done more efficiently? How about limiting the topics we’re allowed to explore.

I know, that sounds like it goes against much of my writing advice. It’s true, sometimes in an early draft you don’t know what the topic will be and what questions to ask. In that case, start writing and keep writing until you find a direction.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of that exploration time? What if you have to get a thought piece written for your client, or that product marketing piece is due?

 Are Questions the Answer?

I once read an essay by a novel writing teacher who strongly urged her students to write down the central question of their story. No matter how long or complicated the book will be, limit yourself to just one question, put it in a note, and place it where you can see it.

Once you know this question, she argued, you will know what decisions to make, down which alleyways to send your characters or which scenes to leave out. If the story’s action or direction doesn’t somehow connect to that question, then you know to skip the idea and try a different tack.

When you read a lot of work by the same author, it’s easy to see the questions they keep asking. One prolific writer I studied grew up with an alcoholic father and that type of character shows up often in his stories. Perhaps his question is: how does the child of an alcoholic break from this family trait?

In her book, Having and Being Had, Eula Biss asks, does having money help or hinder us. This collection of essays explores this question through stories from her personal life as well as the culture at large. (It’s a terrific book!)

How can we apply this line of thinking to our own stories?

A fun challenge might be to choose one question a day and write a 500-word response. The words don’t have to add up to much because you’re looking for quantity and consistency.

By day four or five, you’ll begin to see some themes emerge and when this happens, you can be more thoughtful and choose questions that get closer to the heart of which themes you want to keep exploring.

Does this really work?

Ask me in a few weeks.

I did this for three months at the start of the year in my Day One journal and the results at first seemed underwhelming. But after I let it be for a couple months and came back to these entries, themes and questions emerged that I’m working with now.

So I’m trying it again—even more focused this time—and while I have not conquered the world’s pressing problems, I am having fun and finding my way to new thoughts and ideas. The question of the day might be simple, or simply unanswerable.

For this next round, I’m answering the same question everyday:

What would I like to do today if I could do anything?

Does this work at work?

So many of the essays I post here do their darnedest to connect the traits and tools of creative writers with those of us who also write at work. Using a central question to help you focus your drafts–whether they be marketing copy, internal memos, or even individual emails—is a limitation that will help you compose faster and wander off topic less.

For instance, is the question for a new software product marketing draft, What will this software do?

Many of you are shaking your heads thinking, No, the question should be: What problem does this product solve?

Still, a few of you might say it should be, Who will use this and why?

Maybe there are still a few more folks who think about, Why this product is better than the competition?

Of course, all of these questions are important ones to answer, yet it’s a rare case when they all belong in the same message.

How do we decide what that one question should be?

If you’re in Story Mode, then you know the answer centers around the audience. It is their question you need to answer, in the format that works best for them. Even though you have so much more information to share, experiment with this limitation and see if your draft is cleaner and focused on the right target.

The bonus of this approach is that if you write drafts answering each of these questions, then you have weeks or months of material you can use to develop a conversation with your audience. Some of the drafts may work best on social media while others work well in brochures or direct email newsletters. You can never have enough copy to shape and sculpt!

Try this series of steps to help you zero in on what’s most important right now:

  • Write down every question you have/had about this assignment. From who to why to what’s the deadline.
  • Write down every clarifying question you wish you had asked when you were being briefed.
  • Write down a list of questions you think you cannot/should not answer. (Keep it related to this subject. No need to get existential.)

Next, put away all these lists and imagine your reader and what they need and want to know. What question would they ask right now if they were sitting across the table from you?

Try putting that on your note. Every time you stray, look up and be reminded of the reader and what answer they need to hear. Do this and you’ll know the right question to ask.


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