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‘What is the central question in your work?’

18 August 2021 | Writing Comp

Written by Chloe Higgins – Author and Writing Coach 

As I write my second book, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that we don’t get to choose what we write. If we’re writing from our gut, rather than our head—and I always want to be writing from my body rather than my intellect—then what is most urgent for us isn’t something we get to consciously decide.

When we write from our gut, what comes out on the page is what needs to be explored. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, the effect of writing from your gut is the same and, more often than not, it’s not what we planned to write about in the first place. Which is to say: it comes from a place much deeper than intellectual knowing.

As you work through your early drafts, the central question of the piece will constantly change as you sink deeper and then deeper again into what questions are most pressing for you to ask. You might not even be aware of your central question at first. It’s only when you get a first draft down on the page and take a step back that you can start to see what your subconscious has put on the page.

Writing reminds me of therapy. You take a problem to your therapist and have a conversation about it. At first it might be about the surface-brain stuff but the longer you talk, the more you realise it isn’t about the surface stuff at all. You go away for a week and think over everything and start to gain a deeper understanding. Then you come back and bring the same topics up again and talk through the same issues and it all starts to feel a little pointless … until it doesn’t. All that talking about whatever needed to be spoken about starts to make a little bit more sense.

It’s a constant process of confusion to epiphany to deepening understanding.

In the same way, writing is about letting go of control. It’s about getting out whatever your body needs to get out, even when it might not make much sense to your intellect. Then, when you take a step back you start to see the threads that run through your work. Then, your intellect starts to see what your body has been trying to tell it.

It seems, at the moment, the central question in my second book is: What emotions are you trying to avoid, and why? The plot is all about Muay Thai, sex, trying to have relationships and so on. But those things are icing on the cake. The real question is: What would happen if I learned to sit with uncomfortable emotions?

Once you identify the central question in your work, then you can go in and take back control. Which is to say, you can begin editing. Writing is about letting go of control, editing is about taking back control. Ultimately, editing is an act of curation and if you don’t first let your first draft be a place to discover the central question your body wants to ask your brain, how can you ever hope to edit and curate in service of it?

This is your challenge as you draft: to differentiate the plot of your work and the central question that sits beneath it.


Click below to find Chloe’s previous pieces on:

‘How do I get a first draft on the page?’

‘Why I don’t believe in writers block’

‘What is the central question in your work?’