Last week, I wrote about the magic of writing and how the best way to get to that magic was by stepping out of your own way. It all starts with research. When we have taken the time to really know our subject, we can more easily let loose and allow what we have learned to come together in its own unique way.


No matter what we are writing (stories, poems, essays, academic papers, business reports), we first need to do some preliminary research. If the document is a business report, we may gather budgets and statistics, along with some anecdotes and measures. If we are writing a poem, we want to be well versed in the topic at hand: Not a red bird, but a scarlet tanager. If we are penning a story, we need to know so much about our characters we can tell you what kind of bathroom rug they have. Memoir? Who were your friends when you were four and your parents moved the family to Cincinnati?

The more you know, the easier the writing will be and the more your writing will come alive.

Some of our research will involve looking up specific information: What type of plants grow in the Okefenokee? What were the most popular songs in 1967? How much money will we save if we use this new software program? What countries have signed onto the U.N. Kyoto Protocol on global warming?

Most of the research we need in creative writing comes from mining our own thoughts, memories, and imagination. What does your 35-year-old hiking protagonist look like? What are his passions? What is missing in his life? And then there is setting. What does the kitchen need to have in it to help with the story? Should the refrigerator door have to be pushed hard to get it to close right? Does the tap in the kitchen sink constantly drip? Has the table been in the family for four generations? Other research. How does that girl from your home town in the rural South speak in comparison to your protagonist from Montreal? What were you feeling when you came home after you eloped and found out your father had a heart attack while you were gone?

Creative exercises

There’s a million questions to find answers to. How do you find them? Here are three creative exercises that may help. You may use them before you start writing or anytime in the writing or editing process when you need to gather information, figure out what’s next, or answer questions you have about your own story or article. Find the one that works best for you.

Start with a specific question

Creative writing: What does the mother in my story really care about and what is standing in her way? What does it feel like to be trapped inside a cave waiting for someone to find you? What would happen if my protagonist decides he wants to drop out of college and marry the girl he got pregnant? What changes in the story if I add a new love interest? Business writing: What will I need to show my boss so she will agree we need to change the communication plan we have for incentive pay? Memoir: Why does that memory of the campfire at the beach when I was 12 still haunt me? Articles: Since I only have 750 words, what are the most important points I want my readers to know about investing in the stock market? Poetry: What is the connection with the old man I saw walking along the highway in 102 degree heat and the day my dog died when I was seven years old?

Freewriting – Pull out a piece of paper and pen (you can do this on your computer as well). Start writing for a specific period of time (at least 10-15 minutes). Do not stop writing, no matter what. Do not edit or go back at all to what you have written. Only go forward. Follow your thoughts wherever they take you, even if you think you are getting off track. If you can’t think of anything to say, write “I can’t think of anything to say,” or something similar. You will come back to the topic at hand.Clustering – Start with a circle in the middle of the page. Write your question in that circle. Now, each idea that comes to you about that questions draw a line off the middle circle to a new one. Expand on each new circle with new ideas. Draw lines to ideas that connect with one another. A version of this is called mind mapping, and you can find software online to help you do this.

Brainstorming – Start with your question and make a list down the page of all thoughts that come to your mind. You may want to make columns for ideas that are connected.

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