Lost for Words? Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

It’s a common dilemma. You have a really important document to write and the deadline is looming. You sit down at your computer to write it and – guess what – you’re completely at a loss where to begin.

It’s not as if your manager has suddenly sprung this task upon you or that you haven’t given it any thought at all. In fact, you’ve proactively allocated time to write it, but you’re already struggling and you haven’t written a word yet.

You have a common case of writer’s block. We’ve all encountered it and it always seems to hit when you’re under pressure. But fear not, there are ways you can tackle and overcome it.

Identify the cause

There are two main causes of writer’s block: fear and lack of information.

Let’s deal with the fear factor first. People often approach putting finger to keyboard with trepidation – as if somehow once your words are on the computer screen they are cast in stone. Far from it.

If you approach a writing task with the idea that it’s better to get something on screen than not to write a single word, then you’re likely to make some progress. It doesn’t matter if what you write isn’t perfect first time. You can always play with it later (although of course it always pays to plan your work; see practical tips for kick-starting your writing below).

It’s far better to get an imperfect report written today than to delay for another six weeks to achieve what you consider to be perfection. By then you’ll have infuriated your manager, spent more time than necessary writing (and rewriting) and potentially lost the business.

Forage for information

It may be that you simply don’t know what to write, because you don’t have all the information you need. So go out and find it.

Do you know what your audience expects from this document? Do you have a good view of your readers’ requirements? If not, then completing a reader profile questionnaire might help. If this kind of formal approach isn’t for you, then simply ask some of your readers – or those close to them – some targeted questions. Often the responses you get may help to cristallise the issue for you and get to the heart of your document.

Make sure you’ve thought through your subject matter thoroughly. Brainstorm all the ideas and information you know already and then highlight where you need to do some more research.
But don’t forage for information unnecessarily. You may be over-complicating the issue and you could tie yourself up in knots.

Practical tips for kick-starting your writing

Once you’ve worked out what’s preventing you from writing and have filled any information gaps, you’re ready to get going. Here are a few pointers to get you started.

  • Write a rough plan. This helps separate your thinking from your writing and creates a logical structure for your document. It’s also a great way to ease yourself into the actual writing.
  • Do something different. Sometimes if you sit in front of your computer scratching your head for too long, you’ll simply confuse yourself more and increase your frustration. So make yourself a cup of tea, have a chat with a colleague, even pop out for ten minutes if you can. It’s amazing how a change of scenery can refresh your thought process. Who knows, while you’re away from your computer, you might even get a flash of inspiration about how to start your document. Time out also helps to get you into ‘action mode’ for once you return.
  • Set a time to start writing and stick to it, whatever happens. As this time approaches, you should feel a sense of anticipation and be ready to get going.
  • Think about your intro. Often it’s the first paragraph of a document that’s the most difficult to write. So if you can think of an engaging way to start your writing, for example, using a historical info that contrasts what used to happen last year or last decade with what’s happening now, that will kick-start the rest of your document. It will also grab your reader’s attention and encourage them to stick with you.
  • Impose a time limit on your writing. This usually works if all the above have failed. Say to yourself, I’ll write for five minutes – and five minutes only. How bad can five minutes be, after all?

This method is amazingly effective, because often people speed up their writing and get into the ‘flow’ just as their five-minute limit is approaching – which obviously stands you in good stead for writing the rest of the document.

You need to be honest with yourself, however, if this method is going to work. Stop writing after five minutes if you’re not getting into it and set another time to write for another five minutes. It won’t take many more five-minute sessions before your writing truly starts to flow. We promise.

Rob Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis. Emphasis is the UK’s leading organisation dedicated solely to business writing training and consultancy.

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