Writing is difficult because it requires thinking. When people say, “I don’t know what to write,” it often means they haven’t spent enough time to formulate their ideas. Or sometimes, we try to write something we don’t really believe in.
Many years ago, I started writing fiction. But like most people who try to write, I had no idea where to start or what to say. The truth was I just liked the idea of writing fiction. I didn’t truly believe in the story I tried to write. So it never amounted to something.
For years, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t write fiction. But when I read an essay on writing by Arthur Schopenhauer, the German pessimist, it finally clicked. He wrote:
“There are above all two kinds of writers: those who write for the sake of what they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing. The former have had ideas or experiences which seem to them worth communicating; the latter need money and that is why they write – for money.”
While most of us like to believe we write because we have something to say, the truth is that the majority of our writing is for money or recognition. Now, you might think, “A journalist or copywriter uses their words to earn money.” That’s true. But that’s not what Schopenhauer meant.
He was talking about people who deliberately write without actually saying anything. For example, I often run into articles or writing that just makes me think, “Wait, what’s the point?” The type of writing that goes on and on without moving the reader.
Adopt the Schopenhauer mindset
I like Schopenhauer’s work because it’s pure. He lived according to his values and was never afraid to give up work that he didn’t fully support. In 1820, he was hired as professor at the University of Berlin.
But at the time, Hegel, another German philosopher, was the leading thinker at the university. Schopenhauer didn’t agree with his ideas, and even called Hegel a “clumsy charlatan.”
So what did Schopenhauer do? He took Hegel on in a head-to-head University battle. He scheduled his own lectures on the same time as Hegel. Unfortunately, no one showed up for Schopenhauer’s classes. But he refused to change his hours. So he quit and gave up his career as a professor.
I love that. Sure, Schopenhauer showed some childish stubbornness. But he was his own person and had something to say.
That’s the mindset of a true and honest writer. They write because they have experienced something in life. They write because they have made a realization they can’t hide from the world. That’s what makes their writing good.
Write your truth
Look, everyone has something to say. You might think, “Who am I?” Well, you’re an individual with a voice! Never think you’re less than any other person. There’s no difference between you and Hemingway.
You both have similar DNA, are born, and will die someday. Sure, he experienced a lot of unique things. But that doesn’t diminish your experiences.
Sometimes your perspective just doesn’t come out when you try to write. You likely just haven’t formed the thought yet, or you don’t have the right writing strategy to express yourself. In those cases, you simply need new input. Here are three ways to help you become better at having something to say:
- Consume good quality information—I love reading books and articles that make you think. Stuff that helps you to get insights you never thought about yourself. Here’s a reading list of books I highly recommend. The books are arranged according to 11 categories so you can pick something that interests you.
- Do your own research and experiments—The best stories come from people who talk from experience. That’s one of the main reasons I was attracted to Hemingway’s work. You could tell the man has done a lot of things in his life. It’s about being original and taking the unbeaten path. No one cares about the millionth backpacking story about Bali.
- Practice—Every day, practice formulating your thoughts in a clear and concise way. You don’t necessarily have to write every day. But when you speak to people, take a few seconds to think before you speak. And when you’re done communicating your message, stop. Often, we go on and on to make ourselves clear. Have the courage to say something and stop. Just see how the other person responds.
Every person has a unique set of experiences that shapes their outlook on the world.
If you lack inspiration, try introspection. What have you learned from your past failures or successes? What insights or feelings do you want to express after experiencing the greatest tragedies or the luckiest fortunes?
Writing is a form of expression. If you can write about past experiences in a way that a reader can relate to and learn from, then you’ve done your job. This could be poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or even something like a text message or email.
You can still write for money
Even if you’re writing mainly to earn more, if your work is genuinely helpful, it’s valuable. But be willing to give up everything to stay true to yourself. That’s how we can stay genuine. I’ve discarded a lot of my own writing because it wasn’t useful.
A writer needs to take the reader’s time seriously. Definite and clear writing ensures you didn’t waste your reader’s time.
We all know what it feels like to read works that have been written purely for money. As Schopenhauer says:
“You can soon see they are writing simply in order to cover paper: and as soon as you do see it you should throw the book down, for time is precious. Payment and reserved copyright are at bottom the ruin of literature. Only he who writes entirely for the sake of what he has to say writes anything worth writing.”
When people start to write for their gain, it automatically becomes bad. The writer only cares about saying things that please others.
Write your truth. Write what you actually mean and believe. That’s the only writing worth reading.