How to Write Effectively When You’re Unsure What You Want to Say

How to Write Effectively When You’re Unsure What You Want to SayPhoto by Bettina Barth on Unsplash

As a creator, what is your process? Do you fully flesh out your ideas before you start writing, or build and adapt them as you go?

Whether you’re a creative, marketer, or writer: content is king. That’s what we’re told by Bill Gates. It’s become a trend to tell us that if we want to successfully grow an audience and make money, we have to produce content. A lot of it. “Every day, if you can.”

I don’t write every day.If I did, I would quickly exhaust all and every idea, and nothing I produce would be of value. I’m not the sort of writer who can produce top-end quality seven times a week. I would much prefer to take my time, do thorough research, and create something I’m proud of.

But, in an attempt to create regularly, I sometimes force myself to write when I’m still hazy on the details of what I want to say. I have the bare bones: a phrase or title, but the specifics are still unclear.

If you know you have something to say, but you’re unsure exactly how to say it, or what to include — here’s how to turn a basic idea into a fully developed article.

According to writer and marketer Milena Schmidt, the first step is committing to a working title. It doesn’t need to be perfect just yet, but you should commit to the message it portrays.

Your title is the center of your work. It tells your audience what to expect — so the rest of should be shaped with that in mind.

When we’re hazy on the details, we often throw ideas on a page with no clear direction. But creating a title early on sets the parameters of what our article is about. If something doesn’t align with that title, it’s out of bounds.

In short, your title should properly communicate your original idea in a short, snappy way. It sets boundaries — and helps us stay focused throughout your creative process. If something doesn’t fit, it’s not to be included.

Create a synopsis

You need to decide what journey you want to take your audience on. You have an overarching sense of direction, but how are you going to explain your points in a coherent way?

Asking this will help set out how each point relates. Rather than producing something disjointed, this will help work out how each segment links to the other. It will also help us get clear on how things tie to the overall purpose of the essay. Without it, readers might be left wondering “what the point” of your work is.

Schmidt recommends laying out this plan by drawing out a rough synopsis before you start. Nothing too major. But a good synopsis is a short summary of how your article is going to play out. According to Reedsyblog, every synopsis should contain:

  1. A complete narrative arc. Which should briefly outline the scope of the article and what it should include.
  2. Your own voice and unique elements of the story.
  3. Any research or evidence you intend to draw on, and where.

Here on Medium, the first thing I do to create my synopsis is add sub-headers to my article. From there, I run through and add a short sentence under each. Outlining the scope of discussion, the evidence I will use, and how it relates to my other segments.

Doing so ensures I have a clear understanding of my article, its direction, and how points tie back to your title — rather than just throwing information at a page and hoping it sticks.

Write one true sentence

At this point, you’ve turned your basic idea into a plan of action. You have an overarching aim and a rough idea of where you’re going to take things. The only thing left to do is get started.

The problem for most of us is that we don’t know how to start. We hold ourselves against immensely high standards. We want to produce something of quality, and anything less than that won’t do. Because of that, we often overthink things and struggle to get started.

In his 1964 memoir, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway addressed this issue. Is it not better to get your ideas down on paper, than to write nothing at all? Your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect — there’s nothing stopping you from revising your words at a later date.

If you’re finding it difficult to start, Hemingway says you should begin by writing one true sentence. A sentence you know is accurate. Once you’ve got over that first hurdle and the ball is rolling, continuing the story will be significantly easier.

In the words of Hemingway:

“[If I was struggling,] I would thing; ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence…’ So I would write one true sentence, and go from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

When you’re basing an entire article on a single idea or thought, it’s quite natural for us to ramble, lose focus and go off-topic. Even after you have laid out a plan.

When you’re writing your first draft inflow and you’re getting your ideas down, it can be quite natural to throw out ideas that either don’t make sense or have an unclear purpose.

These are things you should iron out during your round of edits.

One of the most ambitious pieces of writing advice I have received is to “write with clarity.” Sure, I want my message to be as clear and direct as possible. But how do I achieve that?

I consolidate and improve my first drafts using writer Henneke’s four-step method for writing with clarity. The first step involves developing a plan, which we already have under wraps. The others include:

1. Setting up a signpost at each junction

Readers are like travelers. Without clear direction, they get lost. When they arrive at a page, they need to know what your article is about and need constant reminders throughout. To achieve that, outline your purpose in your introduction, and add signposts at the end of each section explaining how things relate.

2. Avoiding vague descriptions

Consider the following sat-nav directions: (1) “at the third road, turn right,” and (2) “in 200 yards, by the school, turn right.” Which description is easier to understand? When writing descriptions, you should replicate the second. It’s more concrete and doesn’t leave room for confusion. If a description forces readers to stop and question what you mean, then it’s too vague.

More often than not, writing needs to be concrete to be understandable. So when things are getting complicated, it doesn’t hurt to bring in pictures, examples, case studies, and metaphors. You should avoid abstract and generic descriptions that aren’t grounded in some real-life experience that your readers can understand.

3. Simplifying your message

In the words of Gregory Ciotti: “Write to express, not to impress.” If you want readers to understand your message and reach your destination, then take them down the simplest route. Avoid unnecessary jargon, complicated words, and large blocks of text. Don’t force readers to work to understand what you have to say. Keep it simple, clear, and concise.

Following this process while editing will help you present your original idea in a clear, concise way that anyone can understand.

Keeping it minimal

As humans, it’s rare that we write accessible content naturally. According to Stanford University, we regularly fall prey to a variety of mistakes that make our reading much harder to read:

  • Our work is littered with vague and unnecessary pronouns. Our work is full of unnecessary terms like “this” and “it.” These don’t add value, are vague, and confuse the reader. When the referent is not clear, you should replace these terms with the relevant noun or noun phrase.
  • We use an abundance of determinants and modifiers. “Before,” “basically,” “pretty much,” and “overall.” All of which cloud our message and could be removed.
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