Do you ever feel like you’re always in a face-off with your word processor – and losing? If so, you won’t be surprised to hear that one of the biggest problems nearly everyone faces when they have something to write is getting started.
Call it writer’s block. Call it finding your muse. Call it spending two hours on Facebook for every two lines you write.
Whatever you call it, getting started is hard.
Most of us are guilty of procrastinating sometimes – especially when we have something important to write.
Thankfully, there are lots of ways you can tackle this problem. Don’t think that finding the writing process horribly painful is inevitable. It’s not.
By using the right tools and techniques and going in with the right mindset, you can be more productive and spend less time agonising about your writing.
I’ve put together eleven of the best ways of doing this. Some get you unstuck. Some get your thinking clear. Others just kill distractions. Together, they attack the problem of getting started from multiple angles.
Try them. Get writing. And spend less time staring into the blank whiteness of Document1.doc.
1) Use a timer
A lot of the time, it feels like the only ‘real’ finishing line in writing is when you’ve finally hit ‘send’ on an email or handed in a report. That reward is a long way away and you’re not sure when it’s coming. It’s no wonder it’s hard to stay motivated.
However, writing is much easier if you give yourself a clear finishing line – or a few of them. A timer can help.
Here’s how to do it:
- Write down a mini-task that’s related to writing your document – say, researching some figures or writing your first draft.
- Use a timer (like this one) and set it for 25 minutes.
- Work on the mini-task you wrote down until the timer goes off.
- Take a break.
You don’t have to complete the mini-task. That’s not what counts as success here. Success is now defined as working on the problem for twenty-five minutes. It’s far easier than just aiming for a really distant finishing line.
Try it. Many people find it works. You can extend this method even further by trying the Pomodoro Technique.
2) Get your research done first
Research can be the biggest part of your preparation.
So if you’re really not sure what it is you’re writing about, you need to get back to the drawing board. Too many people struggle on, trying to make everything come together in one go.
But let’s say you have your ideas together, and you can’t get unstuck because you can’t figure out what needs to go in. Read on.
3) Write a mind map
If writing is the problem, then try not writing.
I know this sounds strange. But there are several ways you can move forward without having to write a single word of your document.
Mind maps are one. They’re a versatile tool (we go into lots of detail about these in our online-training programme e360). But the core idea is very simple.
To create a mind map, follow these steps:
- Note down the subject in the middle of the page.
- Write the aspects of the subject around it.
- Look at each aspect and think about it. Draw a line for each new idea or piece of information and continue this process, radiating outwards.
- Keep asking questions such as Why?, How?, What?, When?, Where? and Who? until you’re satisfied you’ve put down everything you know about the subject.
Just getting something down on paper will help you get into the flow. The same applies when you’re face to face with your dreaded nemesis: the blank screen …
4) Write absolute gibberish
Blub blub blub blub flep flep flep flep.
Feel better? Great. The relief of filling up the white space and getting your fingers moving can be good in itself for banishing the fear of getting going. (Ditch any idea that this is inherently ridiculous – if it gets you started, that’s all that matters.)
The next tactic shows how you can take this complete freedom even further.
5) Get a draft written first: it doesn’t have to be perfect
If you write total gibberish, writing is as easy as randomly mashing the keyboard.
If you aim for perfect writing first time, writing seems almost impossible.
That’s because it is very, very hard to write brilliant, error-free content first time. Excellent content comes with gradual refinement by revising and editing your writing.
But if you try and do writing and editing at the same time, you’re paralysing yourself for no good reason. So draft freely. Try drafting more quickly than you’re comfortable with, leaving spelling mistakes or sentences that don’t sound that great behind – knowing you
And take some pressure off yourself:
6) Stop aiming for the perfect document: the 90 per cent rule
Trying to give 100 per cent can be a recipe for failure.
The sports psychologist Robert Kriegel saw this while working with some Olympic sprinting hopefuls. The sprinters were tense and tight during practice runs. So Kriegel told them to try running at 90 per cent of their normal intensity. It had surprising results.
The group ran faster when they were trying less. In fact, one sprinter even set an unofficial world record.
It’s the same with writing. Trying to be the 100 per cent complete greatest professional who will write the best of all possible documents is too much pressure. You’ll do better by giving yourself (just a little) bit of slack.
7) Ask whoever needs the document what they want
If you’re really stuck, it may just be because you don’t really know what you should write and why.
That’s a pretty hard thing to admit, especially if you’re deep in the writing process.
But for some documents, it can be best to pull yourself away from your screen and ask whomever you’re writing for what they want.
This can be something as simple as, ‘You’ve asked for a report on the incident, so I’m going to write what happened and why it happened, interview everyone who was involved and ask them what they did, and give some recommendations to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
At this point, you might find out that you’re missing a big section, or conversely that what you’re writing is more detail than they want.
Either way, getting some clarity on what’s expected will make every other part of your writing easier.
(But what if you can’t ask them? In that case, you can profile the reader in your head.)
8) Discipline yourself: install something that will force you to get focused
Some of the best engineers, psychologists, designers and marketers in the world have collaborated to make the most distracting websites possible. They’ve developed ways of systematically undermining your willpower and keeping you hooked. And they’re getting better all the time.
This can occasionally cause minor problems in staying focused.
So, instead of fighting the siren call of these websites with your willpower, it can be best just to block all such sites completely.
The tools RescueTime and SelfControl both help you do this. Many people find the compulsion to flip to their favourite wasting-time site fades once they’ve run into a few messages telling them that it’s blocked. After a while, it gets easier to get into a state of flow and get on with your writing.
9) Take away your options: stop playing with fonts
One of the most popular articles we’ve ever written is ‘The best fonts for business documents‘ – in the time you’ve been reading this, it’s very likely that several people have read that article.
We’re happy people are interested in looking professional, and any reduction in the number of serious business documents written in Comic Sans is a good thing.
But, unfortunately, too many people look at formatting first, rather than last.
Instead of drafting your document in Word, which is constantly offering you a range of seductive fonts and line heights and margin sizes and bullet-point options (and on and on and on), it can be better just to strip all this out.
Draft does this. It’s a site that lets you write documents in your browser, and we swear by it at Emphasis. The interface limits your formatting options and lets you get on with writing. (You can read our review of it here.) Best of all? A completely functional version is free (it’s the one I used to write this article).
10) Speak to someone
As children, we communicated our ideas by speaking long before we started doing so in writing. For many people, speaking still comes more naturally and easily than writing once they’re adults.
So if you’re struggling, stop typing and talk to someone. Tell them the main points of what you’re writing about and why. You’ll find that, when you’re speaking more conversationally, you can’t get away with being vague or speaking in professionalese. Then, once the ideas are flowing, transfer them to the page.
If you haven’t got anyone to talk to, you can imagine talking to someone. (Or talk to yourself – though doing this unannounced in the middle of the office might make it look like the pressure of writing has really got to you.)
11) Remind yourself why you’re writing
Too often, we can get so lost in the process of writing that we don’t remember why we’re writing.
But it’s good to keep your why in mind. If you have a to-do list for your document, try writing at the top ‘make the customer feel happy’ or ‘get basics of information to manager so we can get this project moving’ – or whatever applies to your piece of work.
Moving away from your words and back to the main purpose of what you’re doing makes it easier to get on with mini subtasks (like writing a first draft). That’s because you can see what you’re doing in the context of something more meaningful.
Try something new
If you find yourself habitually procrastinating, you need to change at least some of your writing habits.
This can feel scary. A good example is writing faster than you’re comfortable with, leaving imperfect sentences in your wake. If you’re used to writing something really, really good and deleting each sentence and re-writing as you go, it’s going to be tough when you first try writing more freely.
But you should try. If there’s anything to be learned from the extremely diverse habits of famous authors, it’s that they found their own best habits for writing well.
You’re just as much a unique individual as they are. Try some of the ideas here, find what works for you, and get writing.
If you’d like to learn more about how to tackle other challenges in writing, check out our in-person courses for individuals and companies or our online-training programme e360 – or just get in touch.
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