This One Cool Trick

Have you ever had the experience where you only realise what a piece is really about after you have finished writing it? This can feel hugely frustrating, as it often means that the writing you have done must be jettisoned.

But it reveals a deeper truth about the writing process: sometimes I do not know what I think about a topic until I am forced to write it into shape.

My conscious sense of what my argument is, or what the point will be turns out to have only a vague relationship with what appears on paper.

Put in more basic terms: the act of writing is not simply the translation of ideas into pages.

Writing is thinking.


  1. Try freewriting for 10 minutes about the main idea in something you are working on at the moment. Write as much as you can, without censoring yourself at all. No thought is too stupid.
    1. Take a few minutes to look back over what you have written. Highlight three the three ideas or points that surprise you the most.
    2. Freewrite again for 10 minutes about what your piece is about, making at least one of these points the central one.
    3. What do you need to do next with your work to write this piece based on your freewriting? You don’t have to follow the surprising leads, but what will you do? Do you have the evidence you need to back up your argument? Have you got the secondary readings and ideas you need ready?
    4. This exercise can be repeated regularly. Try it once a week to keep your ideas flowing. Or you can use it when you feel stuck on a piece.
  2. Keep a diary or a journal about your ideas. Set a word count and write at least that number of words every day. Write about what you are reading, what you are thinking, your struggles, successes, challenges, and ideas. You don’t have to read it…
    1. … but you can read it later for inspiration, and also to remind yourself how you developed your ideas.
    2. Or try keeping a visual diary. In 12 Rules of Creativity Michael Atavar recommends collecting images that appeal to you during the week (see pp. 66-7). As a historian, you could build up a collection of visual sources connected to a topic you are researching, but you may equally want to look for inspiration elsewhere, such as in magazines or adverts.
      1. Once a week, go through your folder of images and choose one to write about.
      2. You could try writing from the point of view of something in the image (as Atavar suggests). Or you could write about the meaning and significance of the image. Why does it appeal to you right now?

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