Top tips to help you stop staring at your keyboard in despair and start writing
You know that feeling. There’s a blog that needs writing, or a newsletter, or email update, or article, or new website page. You’re staring at a blank screen and your brain is likewise drawing a big fat blank as far as ideas go. Or – worse – you have ideas, but you can’t seem to harness any of them into any kind of cohesive and logical order that you believe anyone would be remotely interested in.
So you’ll do anything to avoid that screen – check social media, make another cup of coffee, tidy your desk, put the laundry away, watch YouTube videos of cats on skateboards or another episode of Frasier. But that blank screen is still there waiting, the cursor blinking away at you, accusing you of procrastination of the highest order.
Yep, been there, done that, ironed the t-shirt. Writing is my full-time job yet sometimes even I can’t always guarantee that I’ll wake up every day with something to say. On those days I will do anything to avoid starting a new writing project, especially if it’s a new or a particularly dry/technical subject. I am a master “faffer”.
What is writer’s block?
According to the Cambridge English dictionary, writer’s block is “the condition of being unable to create a piece of written work because something in your mind prevents you from doing it.”
The italics are mine because I want you to focus on those words: Something in your mind prevents you from writing. You could argue that so long as you find out what that “something” is you can resolve it and get going, right? But in my experience looking for and trying to define the cause of the block is fruitless. Hours of self-analysis as to why you’re stuck isn’t the key for unlocking your brain’s creativity. The best thing to do (again in my experience) is to acknowledge that you’re stuck, recognise any feelings of guilt or pressure, set those feelings aside, then take practical steps for getting unstuck.
Over the years I’ve developed a number of techniques to help me unstick and conquer that blank screen. At any time I’ll deploy one or two of these to get the brain ticking over to start with and come back to others if I need to.
Top tips to remove writer’s block and start writing
1. Compose a mini copywriting brief
I ask every copywriting client for a written brief as a matter of course but I’ve just picked out the key headlines for this shortened version. It’s useful in situations where you have a topic in mind but don’t know which aspects to focus on. Don’t spend too long on it, 10 – 15 minutes should do the trick.
Requirement: What is it you’re writing – a web page, blog, email etc?
Purpose: Why is this wanted or needed? What prompted it?
Your key message: In a single sentence, what’s the ONE main thing you want your reader to know or remember? (this could turn into your headline)
Your target audience: Who do you want to reach most? Describe your ideal reader in a ‘pen portrait’, even down to their age, gender, interests, lifestyle etc
The problem you are solving: What value are you providing? What do your readers need from you?
Why you? Again in a single sentence, state why your customers or readers love you
Why should anyone care? If you’re writing about a product, a proposition, or an aspect of your service, write down what the product is, what it does, then why anyone would want to buy it
Call to Action: When your reader gets to the end what do you want them to do? Buy something, book an appointment, download something?
Going through this exercise as an analysis of the subject matter will help calm your brain and clarify your thoughts.
2. Do some research
If it’s blog time or newsletter time and you’re stuck for something to write about then answerthepublic.com is a really cool, fun tool for research. It’s free to use up to a point (it will cap the number of times you use it per day) but all you need to do is enter a few keywords and it will show you all the questions people are currently asking Google about that subject. It shows you the data as a graphic (see an example above) but there’s also an option to download the data as an Excel csv file so you can have a play. Plus the questions themselves often make for great headline prompts!
3. Create a Mind map
Some people are really good at mind maps, using colour coding and wiggly lines to great effect. Others, like me, keep it basic, just using the technique to group ideas under headings. The one shown above helped me to understand an industry I had no previous knowledge of (professional wedding photography), what ideas were the most popular and what information was the most sought after. From this I got my structure and key messages for a whole series of blogs.
4. Start anywhere
There is no rule that says that when it comes to writing you MUST start at the beginning and write in order. Sometimes I need to approach a project like a jigsaw puzzle, so long as all the pieces are there it doesn’t matter which way round I write them up. I can always re-order them later on to create a narrative.
5. Start with the section that gives you the least anxiety
This is a fantastic piece of advice from a fellow copywriter which goes with tip #4 above. If you’re faced with a big writing job e.g. an entire website or a long article, start with the bit that causes you the least stress i.e. the easy bit, the bit that you already know. For me it might be the About page, or one or two of the products, or even the Contact page. So, just like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, I start with the parts of the picture I recognise and relate to and build from there.
6. Bullet point the three main ideas then build on them
This was another amazing tip from copywriter Leif Kendall of ProCopywriters. He suggested writing down the three key ideas about the subject matter as bullet points. Then turn those bullet points into complete sentences, then paragraphs, then headlines etc. Before you know it you’ll have a page of useful content and you can go from there.
7. Imagine you’re telling someone in the pub
Hold an imaginary conversation with someone in a public place to describe what you’re writing about. Pubs, cafes or restaurants pose challenges in that their environments have plenty of distractions. You or your friend might be eating or drinking or both. There are other people around and lots of background noise. You need to hold your friend’s attention, so your side of the conversation needs to be very compelling and engaging. This will again give you your key messages, ideas, thoughts, headlines, calls to action, etc.
8. Write anything, even if it’s rubbish
Sometimes the only thing to do is put down whatever is going through your head even if It’s unlikely to ever see the light of day. This can be stream-of-consciousness completely random blue-sky verbiage that makes no sense to anyone – even you. But the act of getting something anything written can unlock your creativity and help get your thoughts in order. There’s a wonderful saying in copywriting circles: Don’t get it right, get it written. Keep this in the back of your mind as you spill random thoughts onto the page and know that you’re not alone.
So what tricks did I use to write this blog?
My starting point was a long list of tips in numbered bullet point form. I actually had too many for this article, so I’ve got more saved for a later blog. I then fleshed out the bulleted list, which prompted ideas for the headline and the opening paragraph, and went on from there. It helped that I was writing about a topic I know well of course so I was able to write honestly and from the heart.
I hope you’ve found something useful here to help you beat that blank page and start filling it up with good words. But if you do need any help, contact me for a chat.
Do you have good tips for beating writer’s block? Let me know in the comments!
About the author: Helen Say is the founder and co-owner of CBL Copywriting and SEO, an independent marketing consultancy based in Hemel Hempstead, UK. Their mission is to de-mystify SEO for small business owners and create great content that gets found on Google. Helen can sometimes be found staring at a blank screen, but not for long.