If you’re the guy (in the non-gender-specific sense of the word) assigned to write blogs and other content pages for your business’s website, then you know your job is tougher than it seems. You don’t need me to tell you that. Some days, it’s a struggle to get words on the page—and nearly impossible to arrange those words to mean what you actually want to say.
But today I’m going to ask you to spare a moment of sympathy for our friends and cousins in the writing business: fiction writers. Not only do they have to contend with the same challenges we face, they have to make up stuff on a far greater scale than we do. And they have to deal with fans, or at least throngs of readers who demand answers about the writing process. Again and again, fiction writers are confronted with the most annoying question of all:
“Where Do You Get Your Crazy Ideas?”
Why is this question so terrifying? As someone who has dabbled furtively in fiction writing, I can offer three reasons:
It’s a vitally important question.
If only we could identify the wellsprings of human creativity, we could perhaps apply our imaginations on demand. Instead of relying on unexpected bursts of creative thought, we could direct our inventive minds to do the most good.
Writers simply don’t have the answer.
No, really. Even though we’re central to the creative process, we’re mostly just along for the ride rather than piloting the starship ourselves. We have ways to encourage ideas to come (and we’ll be looking at those shortly), but the actual flow of inspiration is as much a mystery to us as it is to others.
We’re worried that if we keep plumbing for the source of inspiration, the well will dry up.
Writer’s block is real, and we fear it. After all, when writing is our source of income, a sudden inability to write can mean financial disaster. We have all heard stories of brilliant, creative people whose writing has stalled for months or years for no apparent reason. We don’t want that to happen to us.
Now, website content writers have certain advantages over fiction writers: we don’t have to worry about plot, characterization, or dialogue. We can conduct research to settle factual questions and wrap everything up in lucid, easy-to-read prose. Our writer’s block problems are less complex, too. Sure, we may have some trouble selecting a topic to write about or choosing a persuasive stance on a controversial issue, but a simple outline will let us marshal our thoughts in a clear organizational framework. From there, the blog or other content piece almost writes itself, doesn’t it?
Maybe not. Even when you have a solid concept, getting the first few words down can be an immense challenge. The blank page or empty computer screen is, to be frank, intimidating.
How to Begin When You Don’t Know How to Start
Fortunately, there are some time-tested strategies to refresh your writing vigor. I have used all of these successfully at one time or another. Mix and match from the list below, according to your temperament, tastes, and talents:
Take a break.
Step away from the computer and do something radically different; return to your writing in a few hours or even the next day. I’ve had the best success by switching to a different creative endeavor, so you may turn to cooking, playing a musical instrument, photography, or even getting out a set of crayons and a coloring book. Other people prefer analytical activities, such as completing crossword or jigsaw puzzles or playing card games. Still others find relief in vigorous physical activity: dancing, jogging, or even a thorough housecleaning project. Active engagement is essential; no matter the course you choose, be a participant and not just an observer.
Write a zero draft.
Forge ahead and write the article. Don’t worry about whether it’s your best possible work—or even if it’s readable. Just get words down on paper (or pixels on the screen). When you’re done, take a five-minute break, then come back and read through what you have written. And then, the key step: throw it away. Begin all over again—but this time, you will be alert to the spots where your initial draft went wrong, and you can anticipate pitfalls. This official first draft may need additional polishing, but it will be worth keeping.
Refute your position.
Unless your assignment is strictly news reporting, your planned article will be taking an advocacy position. For example, a basic personal injury blog might argue that distracted driving is a significant cause of severe motor vehicle injuries, and the services of a seasoned attorney represent the best chance for a financial recovery. Instead of writing that article, write an article that contradicts it: distracted driving is no big deal, you may contend, and any injuries can be resolved easily without a lawyer. Don’t worry whether the final article is true or internally consistent, just that it’s superficially plausible. When you’re done, you will find yourself invigorated to begin the real assignment.
Tackle something even harder.
Maybe you’re blocked because the assignment before you is too routine to stir your passion. So set that aside and turn to a tough project that you’ve been meaning to work on for some time now. If the project is too complex to finish right away, at least give it a good start. You will find out that following up with the “routine” article becomes a much more pleasurable task.
Switch out the outline.
If you usually prepare an outline before you write a content page, then skip that step this time. An outline can help keep your work organized and succinct, but it can also inhibit creative expression. Contrariwise, if you usually don’t use an outline, try using one to give structure to the project that has been frustrating you.
Write the piece backward.
If your primary problem is finding a way to start the essay, begin with the last paragraph instead. Traditionally, that’s the call to action, which asks your reader to commit to further contact. Write that final paragraph first, then move backward to the central text of your essay. Finally, you can conclude by writing the introductory paragraph; since you already know in detail what the rest of the article says, writing an appropriate introduction should be a piece of cake.
Fortune Favors the Prepared Mind
Ideas for writing can suddenly show up at any time. Be open to sudden flashes of inspiration by keeping a list or logbook of ideas—topics, bits of clever wording, style approaches—that you can use in the future. I’ve also found it’s essential to have a notepad on the table beside my bed, to jot down ideas that pop up when I’m away from the computer.
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