When I Have No Idea What To Write About

At least 60% of the time when I sit down to write one of this essays, I have an idea in mind. Sometimes I think it is a particularly good idea I am nervous that I won’t carry it off the way I want to. Other times, it seems like a worthwhile idea, but not a great one, and I fear that it will show through in the final product.

The other 40% of the time I have no idea what to write about. I have a list of ideas, but often they don’t hit the right buttons for me at that moment and I am left staring at a blank screen. What to do?

Over the years I have developed a process for working myself out of these situations. It is straight-forward, if a little time-consuming, and always seems to produce a satisfactory idea or two. It goes like this:

  1. Pull one of my Andy Rooney essay collections, one E.B. White essay collection, and one Isaac Asimov essay collection off the shelf.
  2. Flip through them randomly to remind myself of the wise variety of topics that they wrote on in their columns.
  3. See what ideas pop into my head.

This procedure always seems to work for me. I did this, for instance, last Friday evening when I couldn’t think of anything to write about. In my flipping about some Andy Rooney essays, I came across something he wrote on weathermen. It reminded me of how we like to talk about the weather, and thus my piece on talking about the weather was born.

This procedure doesn’t always trigger an idea based on something I see. Sometimes the idea comes from a different direction. Today, for instance, at loss for an idea, and knowing what a busy schedule I had, I pulled various collections off the shelf (step 1) but before I even began to flip through them (step 2) an idea popped into my head (step 3). That idea, of course, what to write about what I do when I don’t have any idea what to write about.

It should surprise no one who reads this blog that Asimov, Rooney, and White are the three biggest influences on my in terms of style and subject matter. Asimov write mostly (but not always) on scientific subjects, translating them into something that a layperson like me could understand. No surprise then that I should occasionally write on software (technology) subjects and try to write them in a way that everyone can make sense of. Rooney (who was himself highly influenced by E.B. White) wrote on everyday things. So it is no surprise that I write on everyday things, now and then, trying to find humor or irony in them, and only occasionally succeeding.

White is more of an aspiration for me than an inspiration. He also often wrote on seemingly mundane subjects (chores around the farm) but his style made the pieces sing. I think I’ve still got a way to go before people start to say, “I detect some E.B. White influence in your writing.”

Coming up with a good idea when trying to write an original piece every day is something of a challenge. Quality sometimes suffers under the pressure of the self-imposed deadline. And yet I am surprised by how often the last-minute idea and the last-minute writing gains the most notice and comments. It just goes to show that there is no point trying to predict what readers want. I write what makes me happy, and hope that others enjoy it as well.

And now that I’ve finished this piece, I can begin the puzzle anew and start thinking of an idea for tomorrow’s post.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

1 thought on “When I Have No Idea What To Write About

  1. I do something similar, but my essays are by Lisa Scottoline, Anna Quindlen, and Barbara Kingsolver. I’m pretty sure anyone paying attention can see Scottoline’s fingerprints all over my work.

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