Writer’s block happens to the best of us. Yet we often associate it with the novelists, journalists or playwrights out there. The ‘recognised creatives’. But what about the lawyer struggling to write a letter to his client? Or the salesperson trying to write an outreach email? The entrepreneur trying to write a business proposal? Or the copywriter struggling to write about a topic they know nothing about? This article is for all writers, yes, but with a special angle toward these writers, the ones likely found in the corporate world. The people we often forget are writers, yet are expected to write daily. The ones who probably don’t see themselves as writers yet have to find a way to construct a persuasive piece of copy.
Writer’s block is, in the simplest terms, the inability to get words down on paper. But it’s the psychological aspect behind it that has the greatest impact. The block is often caused by, or results in, a range of feelings: panic; the certainty that you have no idea what you’re doing; a lack of belief that you can’t do the writing and you’ll never finish what you started, or that you’ll never start at all. The conviction that you’re a fraud, that you’re in the wrong job and your boss will find out at any moment.
They’re scary, overwhelming, and frustrating, and they can be extremely powerful, especially in corporate writing. But rest assured, writer’s block happens to all writers. No one is immune. As you’ll see, it’s part of the job. But there are writers who have a different approach to writer’s block, who don’t see it as an unsurmountable problem. And they’re the ones who are likely to move past it more quickly.
Here’s how you can become one of those writers.
The first step to overcoming writer’s block is to try and understand what lies behind it. What causes it. The reasons will vary from writer to writer and even from task to task, but here are some common ones:
Are any of these familiar? Yes? So, what can we do about it?
This is a misleading title, but I know it’s what you want to hear. But let’s be upfront, writer’s block is always going to be there. It’s part of the process. But, despite that, there are definitely ways to help ease it or move through it.
As we saw in the list, one of the main causes – and from talking to writers in the corporate world, it really is a significant one - is the belief that we don’t know what we’re talking about. And that belief might be correct! We can’t write about things we don’t know about. But that is where the research and brainstorming ideas comes in. Many people want to skip the research and just get straight in to writing, thinking they’re not making progress unless they’re actually writing. But it’s in the research and brainstorm stage that it all happens. Do that thoroughly and you’ll be well on your way.
Want some tips on research? Read this fantastic blog.
We often start writing believing we should know exactly what to say and that every sentence should be perfect at the first attempt – or at least the second! This isn’t the case. That’s not how writing works. But doesn’t knowing that give you a feeling of relief? It means you can now start writing without concern. You can focus on simply getting your thoughts and ideas out of your head and on to your paper or screen, and working on what ideas you’re trying to get across. In the writing world, it’s called ‘the shitty first draft’.
It’s only once you’ve done that should you start focusing on the words and sentence structure. Those ‘spot-on’ words and perfectly formed sentences will not come straightaway, so there’s not point waiting for them to.
Another cause of writer’s block is boredom. This is understandable as writing is boring at time, so we need to accept that. It’s tedious. It’s hard. It doesn’t always go the way we want. It can feel like such a slog, which is uncomfortable and your body and mind can scream out to want to do anything but that (oh, hello, social media).
But this is all part of the creative process. And we need to learn how to deal with the discomfort, and recognise that the only way to get through it is to actually go through it. If we procrastinate and try and avoid these feelings, we’re just kicking the problem further down the road.
If you don’t see yourself as a writer, or feel you have no idea what you’re doing, there are lots of resources out there that can help you improve your technique, and give you a confidence boost. Whether it’s online classes, books, blogs or webinars – the internet is filled with them! To name a couple, here is a blog I’ve written, and one book – pocket-sized and so easy to read – which I can’t recommend highly enough: 100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost.
Another cause is the lack of inspiration. But let’s face it, we often don’t have time to wait for inspiration to hit. So, try and use all the time you have. The writing won’t always be great, but you just have to show up and do it. That’s how you keep the work moving. You can always go back and improve something that is subpar, but you can’t improve something that doesn’t exist.
If the task is daunting or overwhelming, breaking it down into manageable chunks can be helpful. This is where the ‘four draft process’ is brilliant. It helps you see that writing is almost always made up of a number of tasks: brainstorming, researching, structuring, editing, polishing. So, instead of thinking ‘I have an article to write’, you take it one stage at a time. It’s much easier.
But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes you may need to break your time down into manageable chunks – anything to get you writing. I often try this when I’m really tired or especially anxious about what I’m writing. It might be as small as 15, 20 or 25 minutes, but knowing you only have to write for a few minutes helps you focus, and you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve. It’ll be better than nothing anyway! When I do this, I always reward myself with a 5 minute break at the end before moving on to the next one, it’s a nice motivator.
Sometimes we just need to re-group, and taking a small break can help do that. But I think it’s important to try and make it a meaningful break. That could be taking a short reading break, going for a short stroll, or reading some inspirational quotes. Maybe it’s having a coffee break, or getting a snack, or simply taking a break from a screen. But a key point here is to prevent it from spiralling out of control. Set yourself a time limit and then go back to your work.
I want to end with some thoughts on procrastination. Writer’s block and procrastination go hand in hand, it can’t be denied. And we often see procrastination as the villain – we berate ourselves and feel guilty if we give in to it. But it can have many benefits and can actually teach us something, if only we stop berating ourselves and listen.
What benefits can it have? It’s often relaxing. It’s much nicer to read, scroll or do anything but the hard task you’re avoiding, right? It also allows our minds to wander, especially if doing a physical task like cleaning. This is actually pretty useful, as we can discover some pretty creative answers during this time.
But, I think most usefully it can be a warning to us. A sign that something isn’t right – that we’re stressed or in need of a break. Or that we’re stuck. Maybe we’re thirsty, tired or in need of some air. It’s a sign that we’re in some discomfort. So, listen to it. Don’t be hard on yourself, instead try and see what it’s telling you and then act. The quicker you get to the root of it, then the quicker you’ll get back to your writing.
This piece was part of our Writing Week – a week of inspiring content designed to help the business world embrace copywriting as well as fight their writing demons. Discover how to make your writing stand out, or how the ‘four draft process’ can help shape your writing process. We’ve also compiled all the pieces into a handy guide, which includes a fantastic list of books to help you improve your craft.