“Writer’s block” is an umbrella term for a vast set of issues with varying causes that effectively “block” the writer from doing their work, and it seems that no two writers can agree on a perfect solution. But there is another situation that I think gets mislabeled as writer’s block, even though the problem can be solved with a little effort and focus.
“Blank screen syndrome” arises when you’ve got a limited time to write a particular thing (say, a 45-minute conference presentation or a 600-word blog) and you have to start from scratch. I’ve found that one of the biggest causes is feeling directionless in a sea of too many possibilities. When you frame it this way, the most practical solution is to establish a context: much like imposing the laws of physics on a 2-dimensional screen to create a lifelike video game, taking a look at the real-life circumstances you are writing within will ground your piece and make it more cohesive.
Some of these tips you’ll be able to put into practice right away, and some of them you’ll have to cultivate into habits before you see the results. Like so many problems in life, the best cure is prevention.
The first few tips are different ways to find or establish a context:
Also known as brainstorming and outlining, prewriting is one of the most overlooked steps in the writing process. It’s true that writing comes a lot easier when you know where you’re going before you get started, but it’s also easy to waste time coming up with more ideas than you need and get bogged down with even more possibilities.
The quickest way to narrow down your scope is to limit your brainstorming time to five to twenty minutes, depending on the project, and then switch to a process of elimination. To continue our comparison with writing and physics, you may also start with diagrams, images and “mind maps” in addition to the classic list.
When you have a general direction for your piece, break your message down into a few major ideas arranged in an order that makes sense. There are no rules for outlining that you absolutely have to follow, so if you’re resistant to the idea, you may have to “un-learn” some of the methods you learned in English class.
Envision Your Reader
This tip is one of the most helpful for that agonizing moment when you’re staring down a blinking cursor and just can’t find the right words. Close your eyes and think of your ideal reader (or viewer or listener), the person you would love to reach and make an impression on with this content. If they were right in front of you, what would you say to them? How would you say it?
Sometimes you’ll realize at this step that you need to dig a bit deeper. What do they already know or feel about your topic, and what do they not know? Where do they come into contact with this issue, and how is it already affecting their lives? Meet them where they are and find some common ground so you can lead them where you want to go.
This tip is especially important for ongoing projects like a blog or a podcast, and in this day and age, “reading” may mean listening or watching other relevant media. It’s an important part of your role as an expert to know something about different schools of thought in your industry and what other experts are saying. If you develop a habit of reading for inspiration and writing in response, you may find it even easier to raise your own voice.
Another way to fuel your own writing with reading is to look at specific examples of the genre you’re working in, especially by competitors or role models. Pay close attention to the aspects you struggle with, such as the language they use, formatting choices, voice and tone, and try to understand why they made those choices. You may find that none of their choices make sense to you, and that’s important to note too!
Once you see your writing as a means to an end, and not just a finished product, there are some practical things you can do to “make the words go,” as us writers like to say:
Check Your Sources
Here I’m talking more about reviewing the sources of knowledge you already have than doing research. How did you first learn about your topic, and when? Did you take a class or “learn by doing?” What have your personal experiences with it been like, and is that different from what you’re seeing in relevant media? Is this something people talk about freely, or is it taboo?
Eventually, you have to shape your writing according to the end-goals and messages you have in mind. But at the earliest stages when you’re struggling to find or generate ideas, it can be much more productive to think about what you know and where you learned it. Your experiences, areas of expertise, trending issues in your field and even other people’s stories can all be potential sources of material.
Start in the Middle
This one is another quick hack to get some words on the screen fast. Forget the introduction (for now) and dive into what you really want to say, then go back when you’re finished and write a paragraph or two that previews what you wrote or acts as a bridge to get your reader from where they are to where your real message starts.
This approach is useful for “bookending” your message with an introduction and a conclusion that work together to drive your point home. These are the places to show that you aren’t just presenting useful information that your reader should have, but that you care about them enough to share it with them in and help them make the best use of it.
Plan Your Content
When you have a content calendar with topics planned six months to a year in advance, you never really have to start with a completely “blank screen.” To keep from falling back into procrastination, it helps to think about what’s going on at different times throughout the year and plan content that will be timely—so that procrastinating on one blog will affect the next one, and so on.
The most extreme cases of Blank Screen Syndrome happen when you’re pressed for time. This also affects your post-writing process (editing and proofreading), so it’s a good idea to write early and often. If you want to be really efficient, you might consider cranking out a few shitty first drafts at a time and then editing them as needed.
Author Jodi Picoult famously said “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” One of the biggest differences between novice writers and “talented” ones is that the latter take the time to reflect back on what they’ve written and change it for the better. Writing is a game where nobody gets it exactly right on the first try, but learning to look at your own work with a critical eye will make each draft better than the last.
My Journal to Blog content creation system begins with an inventory of expertise that you can go back to when you need. Download the free workbook with instructions on this exercise and a few others to get your wheels turning!