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  • Ellen Gardner

A great cure for writer’s block: curiosity

“We run this company on questions, not answers.”

~ Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO


One of the toughest parts of writing is creating the first draft. You know what you want to say, you’ve compiled all the important information and the blank page looms before you like an ominous pit. We can look for inspiration in different places – we call a friend; we read someone else; or we just pound away determined to get something written.


There is an easier way and it starts with thinking like a journalist. If you’re having trouble getting started or have hit a block along the way, it’s probably because you don’t have enough information.


I feel fortunate that one of my strongest personality traits is curiosity. In my younger life, asking questions was a most effective device for hiding my shyness; if I was asking questions and getting the other person to talk, I wouldn’t have to talk myself! It worked very well on dates, and I soon discovered that the more I got my interview subjects to open up, the better my stories became.


When you ask questions some amazing things happen:

  • It inspires trust from your subject – they will see you as someone who cares about what they’re telling you

  • They’ll tell you more than you even asked for (which creates great details for your piece)

  • You are demonstrating empathy for your subject

  • You’ll have a human element for your story, which always makes it more compelling

That last point is crucial. We struggle to get our stories started with information out of own heads – but why not let the new information you’ve gathered become your lead? Stories involving real people move faster and are always easier to understand. And those stories fulfill the important purpose of creating curiosity in your reader – they will want to read more.


It takes practice and discipline to find your own curiosity gene. A good place to start are the 5 W questions – “Why do you do it this way?” “What prompted a change in procedures?” “How could other people learn from this experience?” Those questions are open-ended and elicit better information.


Here are some other ways to cultivate your own curiosity – and illustrate your writing with real people stories


1 – Master the art of listening – listen deeply to uncover what the person is really saying


2 – Ask the follow-up questions – if they start down a certain track, keep it going. People want to tell the deep stories and they’ll share them if you show interest. “Tell me more,” is a great follow-up question.


3 – Make them put the answer in your terms – if your subject starts using jargon or language you don’t understand, pull them back and remind them you’re a novice on that subject.


4 – Be present – push the distractions aside and show you’re really with your subject.


5 – Don’t be afraid of silence. When faced with a challenging question, your subject might pause before responding. Let that awkward silence happen; you will be rewarded with a thoughtful answer.


We fear we might be judged as unintelligent or incompetent if we ask too many questions. Or we don’t want to put people in an awkward position. Don’t let those fears hold you back –questions build trust, and will make our encounters richer and more interesting. And of course, what you hear will give you the lead you’re looking for.


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