At some point in our professional lives, each of us will experience some form of writer’s block – or speaker’s block, and it will be painful, fattening, and unproductive. Sometimes our block comes from being too busy as in “I’ve been too busy to even think about a blog much less write one,” or because we don’t know what to write as in “I don’t understand what they’re asking for in this RFP,” or because we just don’t want to write what we’ve been asked to write as in “Surely someone with more background in this topic can figure this out…”
So, what’s a talented, but blocked professional to do? After you’ve raided the kitchen and eaten half a package of Oreos (a tactic I’m not proud to admit trying on more than one occasion), following are some more productive, and certainly healthier, alternatives. These strategies are not designed to create a superior document, but rather to get a writer started by having content to consider and evaluate. Sometimes they result in a working draft for a document, other times in a more logical exploration of ideas I can use to frame a future document.
Just do it. This is not an attempt to parody a Nike ad, but rather the truth. In a book I just read, when faced with an epic challenge, the protagonist recognized that ‘the only way through it is through it.’ I use this a lot, recognizing that as much as I don’t want to write a document, the only way I’m going to get started is if I actually get started. Sounds simple, and in reality, it is, but it seems so hard.
Write the first line, then the second, then….and see where you are after you’ve written for a while. Don’t worry about the quality of each sentence, nor if each sentence flows seamlessly from its predecessor. Just write.
Let’s be clear, this will not transform you from blocked writer to ‘great American novelist.’ Rather, it will simply get some ideas down so you can see them. Being on paper doesn’t mean good or done; it just means you’ve got something written on paper. The result of this exercise is what we politely call a ‘visual brainstorm’ or a ‘data dump.’ You are free to fill in another metaphor more appropriate to what you actually write down.
You can also start with a topic sentence (sometimes called a ‘central claim’) that synthesizes your content into a single statement of truth as in “Because today’s employees can work from anywhere, we must design workspaces that are both flexible and accommodating.” Then, ‘draw’ content pathways from your claim to see where the content takes you. Different from traditional brainstorming, this method of breaking through writer’s block pushes you to consider different directions on a topic without investing significantly in any one path.
Conducting this exercise on the computer is fast, enabling me to quickly spew a range of ideas upon the page from which I can pick and choose. I can quickly visualize what I know–and sadly, sometimes what I don’t know –to ‘prime the pump’ for the real writing to come. I’ve also found it useful to engage in this exercise on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper, physically drawing links between ideas, crossing out those that don’t bear fruit, and expanding others. As a visual learner, I find the combination of a large board and different colors of pen spurs my creativity and enables me to see linkages and content ideas or direction that I couldn’t see on the computer screen.
Whatever method you choose, a visual brainstorm will show you a pattern of content from which you can develop a logical outline for writing better content. Or, it will help you realize that you don’t know enough to write what it is you’ve been asked to write. This either means that you’ve got a wrong topic, or that you’re the wrong person to be writing about it. For example, when recently asked to write a proposal section for a client, it took me starting a section before I realized that the client hadn’t supplied me with the information I needed to complete the assignment. I wouldn’t have realized that until I actually applied ‘pen to paper’ (or in my case, fingers to keyboard). Only by getting started can you realize what you know and what you don’t know.
Even for those of us who write for a living, writers block happens, and when it happens, it can be professionally challenging and personally frustrating. There are no surefire ways to prevent it, but there are ways to work through it.
For me, there’s a quote from one of America’s greatest writers, Maya Angelou, that pushes me forward, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”