If you do any writing in your job, you know all about that ‘blocked’ feeling.
You sit at the keyboard with that cursed cursor blinking and the clock ticking, and. . . and nothing comes out.
Or just as painful, whatever you manage to type sounds disjointed and clumsy. And the more you fix it, the worse it gets. Meanwhile, your boss is waiting.
I’ve been there. I work there. I run headlong into brick walls or quicksand six or seven times a day. It’s unpleasant, but not fatal if you know how to get going again.
Here are all the tricks I’ve discovered.
Skip the beginning
Are you stalled at page one, line one? Happens to me daily. That’s because a crisp and clever opening is the trickiest part to write, especially when you’re not sure where you are heading.
So start in the middle, at the end, or anywhere but the beginning. Lay down a phrase or sentence that you know must appear in the piece somewhere. (On bad days, I often began product copy at the last line: “To learn more about ______, call us at 1 800 000-0000.” I literally backed into the copy from there.)
Write your conclusion or recommendation or summary first. Or start with a detail, a description of your methodology, a ninth-level bullet point, or a product feature. Now put another sentence ahead of it, and one after it.
Rinse and repeat.
Once you string a few lines together, a mysterious force comes to your aid. Sentences beget other sentences, one idea leads to another, and you’re rolling.
You end up writing the piece from the inside out.
And, the opening may miraculously write itself, once it’s clear exactly what you are opening.
Talk, don’t write
If you can’t get words on the screen, maybe you’re trying too hard to ‘write.’ By reflex, many people get all constricted at the thought of writing; they suddenly feel the need to be ‘formal’ and ‘correct’, and ‘businesslike’. They think smart people use big words. So they end up with stilted* prose, or none at all.
Forget about writing. Think about telling. Pretend you’re on the phone with a customer right now. What would you say about your new discount offer? If you ran into an account executive in the hallway, how would you explain the new procedure to him — live, in person? What would you say in a voice mail to your boss? I bet the words would spill out unhindered.
Now type out what you would say. That’s your first draft.
A corollary to the above: It is infinitely easier to write to a living, breathing human than to some faceless demographic or customer segment.
Instead of writing for an ‘industry vertical,’ talk to that 41-year-old plant supervisor from Indiana you met at a trade show in March. Picture yourself speaking with him directly across the desk. What would make him sit up and pay attention? You’ll be unstuck in less than four minutes.
Years ago, when writing user manuals for desk phones, I always pictured my neighbor, a reasonably bright guy who is inept with anything electronic. I imagined Ray poking helplessly at his new phone, and instantly knew what to write.
Tell a story
A while back I needed to report on a research project I performed for a client. For three nights I struggled with a fancy presentation that went nowhere. I tried pie charts, attribute quadrants, graphs, 3-D matrices, bullet points — all the usual PowerPoint cleverness. But it remained an utter snooze.
In desperation, ninety minutes before deadline, I simply wrote a summary of what we did, who we spoke to, and what they said, what we found out. I told the story, blow-by-blow, in chronological order. PowerPoint-free.
To my surprise, my clients were spellbound. And for me, it was a refreshingly natural way to relate the information. “Here’s what happened.” No dog and pony show required.
And notice that I used a story to make a point about stories.
Forget your critics
Are people looking over your shoulder as you write? Will your document be passed around for everyone to nitpick? That’s enough to constipate anyone.
First, realize that critics and editors have the easier job. Commenting on a document is a cakewalk compared to writing one. So let them tinker; you did the hard part.
Second, note that even the best writers get edited, red-lined and second-guessed. If editors fiddle with Stephen King’s work, don’t worry about the product team pecking at yours.
The late David Ogilvy, of Ogilvy & Mather advertising fame, always circulated his documents with a buck slip saying “Please Improve.” That ingenious trick probably cut down on gratuitous editing by at least 62%.
Explain it to a fifth-grader
Paradoxically, the more you know about a subject, the harder it can be to write about it. If you’re an expert on every single detail, nuance, exception and difficulty involved in your project, it can twist you in knots at the keyboard. Where do you begin? How do you ever explain it all? It’s all too involved.
Try this. Back up a few steps, and think about how you’d explain it to your eleven-year-old niece. Put it all in fifth-grade English.** No jargon or corporate-speak allowed. Difficult? Sure. But the exercise will force you to streamline your thoughts. What is principle, what is detail? What’s the minimum information someone needs to ‘get it’?
Is it really that complex, or are you just showing off?
And don’t be dismayed to discover that what you’ve been working on for six months can be explained very simply. It means you now truly understand it.
Let it be ugly
- Something is better than nothing.
- Crummy web content that is finished counts more than brilliant content that isn’t.
- It’s not always as dreadful as you think.
When all else fails, start typing without pause, without second thoughts. Type with abandon. Never mind if it’s any good or not. Never mind if it’s incomprehensible or too simplistic or too anything. Just keep going until the end. And don’t look back.
At least you’ll be done. Which is always a good thing.
* I once thought stilted meant “awkward, stiff and stuffy”, but that’s not quite right. It means “up on stilts,” like someone trying to appear taller by walking around on two-by-fours. An artificial and transparent attempt at stature.
** Maybe fifth grade is a stretch. Microsoft Word pegged the readability of this article at a grade level of 5.7. And I didn’t have to talk about anything weighty like optimal network topologies or 401(k) rollover regulations. You may have to shoot for middle school.