Writing Tips for the Reluctant Writer

March 9, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Content Strategy

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.

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