Writing Tips for the Reluctant Writer


It’s Monday morning. Okay, it’s actually more like Monday afternoon now. And that simple fact means that I spent a big chunk of today reading and commenting on different blogs (and re-breaking my foot…). It’s part of my Monday morning Getting Caught Up process, the one that prepares me for the week ahead. Impressive considering that my brain on Mondays is still usually half dead from whatever transpired over the weekend.  But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s Monday, dammit. And now my head is filled with half-written blog posts on SEO and social media and blogging and search and everything in between.  And they’re all fighting for their proper attention.  Because Monday means writing.

Monday also means one more thing: My head. Is going. To explode.

This is my life. And if you’ve ever been in the position of having to write content, it’s probably something you’ve experienced as well. It’s hard, that whole ‘getting it out’ thing. The ideas are there, your mind is racing, but trying to get them down…well, that’s a whole other story.

On Friday, my friend and kickass Web designer Zane DeFazio tweeted this bat signal.


He was trying to knock out a few awesome blog entries but couldn’t get them out of his head. He was stuck and needed some writing tips. Vince Blackham suggested we blog about it.

I get their struggles because I have them daily. Just because I’m a writer doesn’t mean it always comes easy. It doesn’t. It’s a process. But here’s what I do when I’m having a hard time getting my writing juices flowing, maybe it’ll help you as well.

Close down the distraction sites.

If you were to look over my shoulder during the day, you’d find that I’m staring at 18 different browser windows (all tabbed for her pleasure). My eyes are bouncing back and forth between information groups and my brain is about to explode. I like it that way. That’s how I take in information. I’m ADD and I jump around, always looking for more, clicking further into a Web site. Until it’s time to write.

When I’m writing, the noise has to stop.

Here’s the thing, it’s really easy to spend 5 hours writing a 400 word blog post. If I leave all my screens open, it means I’m going to notice when my Twitter Search updates. It means I’m going notice when another piece of email rolls in and I’ll have to check it immediately. I’m going to keep an eye on the Celtic game that is updating in the background. And the second my brain hits a lull, I’m going to go straight to one of my social media sites to check in there. It’s too easy to give in to the temptation and what’s easy. [Hey look, as we speak Rae is Skyping me.  I should have turned that off as well.]

These tics not only rob you of time, they also affect the quality of what you’re writing and disrupt your flow. When you’ve hit a groove and then you look away because your BlackBerry just lit up, you break your train of thought. You take yourself out of what you were doing and away from your current thought. You’ve set yourself up to come back feeling scattered and disconnected. That means more editing time.

Close it down, folks. Commit to your writing time and write. Unless Google buys it and feedburners it, Twitter will still be there when you’re done.

Start with a short sentence.

I know, this sounds stupid but I swear to God it works. I write a lot of content. Blog entries, longer articles, guest posts, comments, guides, social media stuff, etc. And if you’ve noticed, most of my posts start off with a short sentence. A quick three or four words. And I do it that way for a reason.

I love blogging. I love my job. But it can also carry a lot of pressure. The act of having to produce something daily. To constantly be funny or smart or to get a point across. It’s daunting. And there’s nothing more daunting than the sight of that blank screen with that stupid cursor flashing in your face reminding you that you’re only at the beginning of the race. Honest to God, I think that’s why we kick letters off with a simple “hi”. Anything to get you quickly get over that awkward hump and get you into the flow of writing. Because once you make it passed that, you’re in the zone. It’s like sex. Once you get passed that initial awkwardness, everything just fits together the way it’s supposed to. You remember why you’re here, what you’re doing and what your audience is waiting for.

Beginnings are scary but you can tackle them. Just say hi and get it over with.

Write without reading.

For the love of God and all things holy, writing and editing are two different tasks. Stop trying to do them at the same time.

The reason you can’t write is because you keep breaking your flow to fix that typo, to use a different word, to clean something up, to say something else, to make yourself sound smarter etc. Of course you can’t get anything down, you’re using the different sides of your brain against one another.

When you’re writing, just write. The first draft is all about getting it out. It’s about getting out all your ideas, putting it all down and losing those restraints. And that’s really the best piece of advice anyone can give you. If you’re having trouble writing, just start typing. Don’t look at the screen, don’t edit yourself, don’t read it aloud yet, don’t even pay attention to what you’re saying, just type. You can fix everything else later. But writing and editing need to be two different processes. Accept that from the beginning and stop trying to combine them.

Wear headphones.

The value of headphones is huge. There aren’t even words for how awesome they are. In fact, without headphones I can’t write a single word. It doesn’t matter if I’m at a noisy cafe or if I’m home all by myself, I need to have my headphones in.  Something about it blocks the other noises in my head (I said noises, not voices.) and gets me into whatever I’m writing.

And sometimes, I don’t even have music playing in them. The buds are just in my ears. Blocking out the random noises of my life and helping me concentrate on what I’m doing. I don’t know where their magic power comes from. I just know they have it. Get headphones. Bring them everywhere.

Schedule writing time

You don’t have all day to write those content pages for your site. You need to do it, to do it well, and then move on. By scheduling a date with yourself to write, you know exactly how long you have to do the task, while also applying a healthy dose of pressure. Everyone (okay, not everyone) works better with a deadline. Without one, you’re likely to become a professional blog starter…where you start things and never finish them. Or just as bad, you write the 5 hour, 400 word blog post.

Know when you’re going to shut everything down to write and how long you have to finish. You’d be surprised what kind of fire a firm deadline can light under your ass.  I call it the ‘Holy Jesus, Rae Will Kill Me’ effect.

Stop writing. Start reading.

If you can force yourself to write, awesome. I can’t. I know when I wake up whether or not today will be a good writing day or if I’m going to have to struggle to say anything. And some days, it’s not even worth the energy to try.

If the reason you can’t write is a mental block, then stop. Don’t force it and come up with something that’s not going to give the topic justice. Instead, go read something. Go read your favorite author. Or a magazine. Or something whose style will inspire you and get you back on track. Take a look at the Six Kickass Writing Resources for Bloggers and see if any of those give your writing gene a jump start.

I have a list of books (some of which you saw this morning.) that I go to when I need something to get me unstuck. Usually I’ll read a few chapters before I can feel my own thoughts coming back together.  Or if that doesn’t work, I’ll go for a run.  Or I did. Until I was cursed with a broken foot that won’t heal. Now I try to stick to reading. And not injuring myself.

Those are the tips that help me get the words from my head to the screen. What are some of yours? We’d love it if you’d share them.

Your Comments

  • Christina Gleason

    This is really good advice. Although I can’t have any noise in the background – not music, not TV, not anything – when I’m writing client content. I can do my own blog posts and such with any number of distractions, although sitting down and actually doing it can be a problem. Starting with a short sentence sounds like a good way to begin. It’s better than looking at a blank page, and that alone can work wonders!

  • Lisa Barone

    Christina: I can relate at times. I go back between needing some type of noise that I don’t have to pay attention to, to having absolutely no noise at all. Either way, the headphones are a lifesaver for me. Even if there’s nothing playing in them, they still block out all those other noises that somehow find their way into my space (computer humming, cat’s crying, the guy who lives upstairs and his afternoon piano session). The headphones are my savior. :)

  • Jeff Bentley

    I find a pint or three helps to get my creative juices flowing. It may impede my judgement to some degree, but it does help to get things moving along. The trick is to wait until you are sober again before you edit and hit publish ;) Hey, it worked for Hemingway right?

  • Greg Finn

    Great tips. Never tried headphones – Going to try that. Agree 100% that writing and editing are different. My initial ramblings are barely English (but one quick editing pass fixes quickly.

    One thing I usually do to help me is to jot down a brief outline (a few words for each thought), then just write once that is done. It helps me write a well rounded article, keeps me on topic and stops me from forgetting things.

  • Lisa Barone

    Jeff: Hee. I salute you for bringing that up so I didn’t have to. Because I’ve never, ever done it. And then tweeted about it. [innocent face]

  • Michael D

    You don’t strike me as someone that would need ideas for writing. Glad you took the time to offer help to the rest of us. Be nice to your feet, they can take you places.

  • Lynne Polischuik

    Lisa: Thank you for another great post. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one out there struggling with distraction and the procrastination bug. I think all of these techniques are ones I know but just having someone lay it all out so succinctly is the good kick in the butt I need. It’s like “I know it works, Lisa CONFIRMED it works–now focus, get off Twitter and get stuff done, damnit.” :)

  • Todd Mintz

    My big one is “Never try to come up with writing ideas while at the computer.” 90% of my ideas come to me while at the gym…the rest either while driving , reading or watching TV.

    #2 After coming up with an idea, let it “marinate” in my brain for a few/several days in order to work through its various components.

    #3 Only write while in the “writing vibe” and only write as long as the vibe lasts. If the vibe isn’t there, the output is crap.

    I’ve actually found that a little bit of editing and “outside distraction” help the writing process and that music is “mandatory”.

    Actually, the Little Green Men create all my stories…I just type out what they tell me to say :.)

  • Dana

    I write fastest/best with an impending deadline of doom. Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die, set to kamikaze mode, quickly ups the impending doom feeling. *Completely* unplugging from everything is also helpful on days when distractions are high.

    I’m also not afraid of scrapping drafts. If what I’ve written isn’t going in the direction I want/need it to go, I’ll start over with a fresh document. That why I’m not trying to shoehorn things in. I do this a lot with clients’ content too that I’m rewriting for whatever reason

    I agree on the headphones bit, although I usually have music going through them (something I can easily ignore like Sigur Ros or the Jesus and Mary Chain).

  • Lisa Barone

    Mike: The trick will be being nice to *you* after that lame ass comment. :)

    Lynne: Hey now, let’s be easy on Twitter. ;)

    Todd: Those are some awesome tips, thanks! I’m totally with you that you can’t just sit down at the computer and decide you’re going to find something to write about. I’ve said this before but my best blog ideas usually come to me while I’m running or in the shower. My mind goes blank and these weird things just come to me and I’m like, “genius!”. :)

    Number 3 sounds good, but not really a luxury I have. If I only wrote when I was “in the mood”, I think you’d see quite a few days go by with nothing being written on Outspoken. :) I try to plan ahead for those days, though, by writing a few posts in advance so when I’m really not feeling it, I have something new to fall back on. Definitely take advantage of the creative juices when you’ve got ’em!

  • Lisa Barone

    Dana: I’ve scraped more than a few drafts, as well. Long ones. Like multi-page ones. It hurts. But I think its hurts less than publishing something that doesn’t feel right.

    I hear you on the impending deadline. That either works really well for me or it makes me start crying at my keyboard with “omg i suck so bad” tears. :) Thanks for the comment!

  • Paul McIntosh

    Two things work for me, most of the time anyway. First, I never stare at a blank page. I have an already written piece up and then start writing the new post/article after it. Mostly this gets me going. If I really get stuck, then it’s time to walk the dog. Some of the best breakthroughs occur on a walk to the park or around the block. Of course a recording device of some kind would be handy to capture some of the fleeting ideas. That being said, it also helps with concentration and focus when I get back to writing.

  • Virginia Nussey

    Great reminders. It’s amazing how much more productive I become when I just close that Twitter tab. Like Greg said, outlines (when I remember them) help me make sure my post has a point. I can never do away with the editing while writing part, but I think that’s just how my brain works. Of course, writing’s more art than science, so to each her own.

  • Glenn Murray

    Noice! You’re clearly a great writer, Lisa, so your tips are obviously working for you. Interestingly (or maybe not), some of them definitely don’t work for me.

    – Distracting sites: I rely on ’em during the writing process. I write in bursts. While I’m actually typing, I don’t like to be distracted, so I’m with you there. But in between bursts, I like to take my mind away. And Twitter/Email/Skype etc. do this brilliantly. I know I’m splitting hairs here, but for me, even the time in between bursts is part of the writing, so thought it was worth mentioning.

    – Write without reading: I always read things back to myself. It’s kinda embarrassing, but I put on a bit of a voiceover voice when I do it, too. I find it improves my flow. I know it’s combining writing and editing a bit, but it’s just how I do it. Kinda like how I keep an eye on SEO when I’m writing too. It’s not the focus; it just helps.

    – Wear headphones: This absolutely doesn’t work for me. To begin with, I find the physical sensation of the headphones distracting. But beyond that, I find music interrupts me more than just about anything else. I LOVE music, and it’s a big inspiration in my writing, but WHILE I’m writing, I find it’s usually just noise.

    – Scheduling writing time: I like the logic of this one, and it does sometimes work for me. I write best in the morning, so that’s when I try to do it. But I still have to be a bit fluid with it, ‘cos I have to write when it’s flowing nicely.

    Couldn’t agree more on the short sentence one though! And agree wholeheartedly that you have to stop writing and start reading at some point.

    The one tip I’d offer that I didn’t notice above, is don’t answer the phone. For some reason, I find the phone far more distracting than aything else. Perhaps because it takes away my power. My choice. Someone else is deciding WHEN I talk, WHAT I talk about, WHO I talk with, and WHEN I stop talking. I find this really frustrating. If the phone rings while I’m deep in my writing zone, I nearly always swear!

    Anyway, some great tips, Lisa. We’re all different, and it’s always good to read about what works for other writers.

    Glenn (@divinewrite on twitter)

  • Michael

    All these are great. I have a lot of blogging ideas, but there are always roadblocks for getting them down.

    And I agree – headphones are awesome for working in search, in general. Can’t tell you how many paid search campaigns I’ve gotten done with some blaring music obscuring the typical office distractions.

  • Stephen Brander

    Great tips. Here’s one I use sometimes. Write the boring / brain optional part first. Depending on what you are writing — type out the phone number and address, or quotes, or information for a chart. Anything just to actually be writing something for the project. Or even the title page – or all the section heads – or an outline of what you want to write. Somethings by the time you are done of all of that… the real writing can begin.

    Another tip is to write lots and lots of headlines… this forces you to think about what you are going to write and allows you to perhaps come at it from different perspectives — and maybe loosen those mental cobwebs.

  • Alysson

    Well, Lisa…I grew up under the impression that I was an only child, but reading your posts sometimes makes me wonder if we weren’t separated at birth – you took off with much better inherent writing skill (among other things), but nonetheless…

    Close down the distraction sites – my nemesis…
    Start with a short sentence – great advice I can’t force myself to follow…
    Write without reading – if only my OCD would allow me to master this…
    Wear headphones – COULD NOT AGREE MORE (especially with kids in the house…)
    Schedule writing time – putting a dry erase calendar up on the wall helps with this…
    Stop writing. Start reading – sometimes this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing…

  • Bobby Kircher

    If you’re a Mac user, I recommend Fluid for managing your “distraction sites:” http://fluidapp.com/ Basically, it creates separate applications for any website you set. I run Facebook, Gmail, AdSense, just about anything that may end up a distraction if it’s sitting in a tab. When I have enough, I Command+Q and *poof* no more Facebook! Alternately, it’s also great for sites you need to focus on — like your blog.

  • Terry

    Great writing Lisa.

    For much longer than I enjoyed, I had to write about the exciting world of insurance. There is not a great deal of inspiration available for such a topic and having no insurance knowledge beyond the commercials I saw on television made the task a job quitter. Almost. I had the idea to use Google and Yahoo news alerts.

    Without getting into all of the glorious details let me say, the alerts were a lifesaver. Constantly updated topical information delivered day and night to my inbox. Within weeks, I became an insurance article writing machine.

    I am so glad those days are over. The experience has been applied numerous times to other writing projects.

  • Shane Arthur

    Turn on your word processor, immediately type “Writer’s block just died,” and watch the creative juices flow.

    As for editing, well I’m biased: http://www.copyblogger.com/proofreading-tips/


  • Suthnautr


    Lisa I enjoyed your piece immensely and look forward to reading what you write whenever possible. I was once a bit of a writer myself, and found that a pair of earplugs plus headphones worked best for me. I’ve found less serious to write about that someone else hasn’t already covered better, and can’t write about what I write best – the sublimely absurd – because it won’t sell, unless perhaps there’s a spot open for me on The Onion. With good writers like you giving encouragement and helpful tips I hope to get back into writing again the way I once did. Thanks for all you do.

  • Greg

    This is great advice. I don’t write anywhere near as often as you but when I feel the urge I run into the interruptions you mentioned. This should help keep me on task. Thanks!

  • saurav

    This has happened to me quite a few times – I have written a smashing piece of content (or so I would like to believe) in half an hours and on other occasions took 4 maybe more to write an ordinary post. Sometimes it just clicks. But then I cannot afford the luxury to wait for that click. Your tips should make the probability go in my favor.

    I like what @Todd said. Most ideas I get is when I am not at my workstation. I may taking a stroll, talking to random people, following twitter stream, reading a post and the list goes on. The marination time is often subjective to in my case.

    Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to write a comment. This was written in plain 3 minutes. Probably because I relate to this topic. (Excuse the typos:) I haven’t edited it).

  • tabsfiroz

    Consider writing at the last moment, whether client’s content or your own blog,…..deadline pressure is awesome and you can really concentrate….try it only if u r good in writing……

  • Vince

    It’s funny, reading your stuff you wouldn’t ever think that you have writers block! Plus, all I ever see you on is Twitter, so I figured you were able to tweet with one hand while writing a blog post with another. I think more of these types of posts would be awesome. We all want to learn about marketing and we all want to get into social media, but many of us have what it takes [somewhere in there], we just need to figure out how to voice those ideas. Great post!!

  • Kat Scholtz

    One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to make a note of references I need while writing, but not to look them up immediately. I fall into an endless clicking and reading trap very easily.

  • Barry Schwartz

    There is such a thing as a reluctant writer? :-/

  • Stuart Robertson

    I do the same thing with my headphones. People often ask me what I’m listening to, and quite often the answer is “nothing”. :)

  • Chris

    That’s why I uninstalled Twitter Fox. As much as I loved it, I was constantly being drawn away from the task at hand. I like to schedule my personal stuff first in the day so I’m never feeling like I don’t get anything done for me.

  • Robyn Volker

    A great post, as usual. Timely for me because I am starting something new that will require a lot more content than I am used to producing.

    Sometimes it just flows, but when it doesn’t I just start an outline instead of trying to do the writing. It clarifies the path for me and I can usually knock it out from there.

    Great tips from others, too – so thanks all!


  • Rachel Burkot

    I think your point about removing all distractions is a good one, as well as writing without editing. More than just the fact that writing with distractions makes the process take longer, stopping every few seconds to check Facebook or Twitter or the weather report (anything to avoid writing sometimes!) means that your writing quality will be poor because you’re not really engaged. You need to get into a positive mindset with a proactive attitude. I’m going to do this, and I’m going to give it 100% until the job is done! Also, writing without editing is important because like you said, staring at a blank page is daunting. Editing while we write also makes the process take longer, breaks our focus and leads us to become unengaged writers. Write first, edit after. It will be SO much easier this way.

  • Robyn McMaster

    Hi Lisa, Like your approach to writing so I have named your blog for a Premio Dardos award. The The Premio Dardos is “bestowed for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing.”

  • Mike Seddon

    Excellent blog. I just love your writing style.

    I’m 100% with you about the headphones. I thought I was the only one who sat there with them in and not playing anything!

    I actually find that when I do listen to music that there are certain albums that really help me concentrate and some that are too distracting.

    I hope the foot gets better soon.


  • youfoundjake

    Nice post, write more… (tongue in cheek)
    I have slowly come to the awareness of having open tabs when trying to create content, and how easily distracted i am by it..Once again a great friendly reminder, as I sit here commenting instead of producing more conte….

  • Derek Kean

    “I don’t know where their magic power comes from. I just know they have it.” I like this quote because just the other day I was on the MTR (HK’s subway) with my new MassivE cushion ear-muff headphones thinking that I felt as if they transform me into an astronaut.

    To supplement the other magical powers of writing- the lull of the waves on a beach. Top class.

  • Kathy Hokunson


    I felt like you were sitting on my shoulder every time I sit down to write, you really described the struggles with the whole process so well.

    I love your writing style and flow and the tips were awesome.


  • lizardboi

    I have to finish up my thesis today. Things are in the right place but I allways distract myself with blogs and stuff -like yours :)- and time is flying away. So thanks for the tip and inspiration. I needed this badly.

  • Derek Bullard

    Another amazing post Lisa. You now have me as a fan for life. I will be following your articles, tweets and blog posts from now on.

    I thoroughly enjoyed that part regarding editing and writing at the same time. This is a habit I have been trying to shed for years.

  • Suraj

    Cool post. I learned very much from this. I have just started my blog. I think I should have to follow some of your tips. It’s very night now and I am feeling sleepy so haven’t read all. I will leave that to tomorrow. But still thought to leave a note here. Well written.

  • Garrett Peterson

    Great advice. I’ve been trying to write new content for my website for a week and keep coming up short. I’m going to try your advice tonight.