How to Beat Writer’s Block

file000909879658Writer’s block is a particularly nasty affliction and can make you feel pretty damn terrible, especially when your time is billed by the hour.

The truth is that while we are now required to create more and more content than ever before and even the very best authors suffer from writer’s block. It just… happens.

I’ll own up and declare that I recently had writer’s block and hadn’t posted here on State of Digital for a six month period. No matter how busy I was, I always used to be able to thrash out a blog post in a spare hour on a train or in a café. Yet, here I was struggling for six months with writer’s block! Admittedly I’m a busy person (but aren’t we all?), but as a PR person you would think that an 800-word blog post would be a piece of cake.

There is a lot written on the subject of writer’s block and I’m not going to regurgitate the countless articles about how to tackle it. In the interests of originality I thought I would share my own personal recommendations for tackling writer’s block.

Put aside time to write good content

If you are a busy person, then pay a visit to your favourite place, your home or a café  – wherever it is that you find you are able to focus the most – and set about planning your masterpiece.  My problem was mainly due to a lack of time, which meant I struggled to sit down for longer than five minutes.  I often tell my team to lock themselves away when they have a feature or a deadline. Some might be writing a 3,000-word report and choose to work from home.

Quality time in a non-distracting environment is important.

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Old School Problems

Discover the ‘real’ story

So many people dive straight into writing without thinking or planning the narrative.  Spend time, and I mean serious time, working out what the story is so that you can explain it to a friend or a colleague. Don’t plan out the full piece yet. Instead write a thirty second ‘pitch’.

Test the idea. Chat it through. Refine it and test it again.  Then you can move on to the more formal planning stage.

Does your post past the pub test?

Peer review is important, but why wait until an article is written to test your subject? Would your post pass for an interesting conversation down the pub? Or would it be taken seriously at an industry conference?  I often find the most argumentative person I know, put my ideas through their paces and then make sure that I respond to each and every point they raise. If you can’t think of a strong enough rebuttal to combat criticism with, then perhaps the premise of the story or feature needs to change.

Think about the wider context or narrative – and what can you add to it

Your story doesn’t exist in isolation. The chances are that unless you are very lucky, there are other stories already published on a similar theme.  Often people suffer writer’s block because when they look at what else is already published on the subject, they feel that it has already been covered.   A good writer will turn this problem on its head.

For example, why is the existing conventional wisdom wrong? What have others missed? What questions do other articles raise that need answering? Inspiration can be found from other people’s work and without plagiarising.

Start at the beginning and spend time crafting your opening

Now that you have tested the idea you are ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard.)

Before writing the full synopsis, focus on the opening paragraph. If you get the opening right then the subsequent 800 words will write themselves, more or less.

The opening paragraph is very important in feature writing and so is the first paragraph of a press release.

The most basic tip I can give for writing a blog post or a feature is to set up the challenge faced, or the opportunity or the big question that is going to be answered, in the first paragraph.

This does not apply for press releases, which need to be written in news-style.

Is your story topical or newsworthy?

It is hard to say whether having a nose for newsworthy content is taught or caught.

Something is newsworthy if it is interesting, topical, notable, noteworthy, important, significant, historic, remarkable or sensational.  One man’s news is another man’s fish and chip paper and something might be of interest to the regional media will not automatically be so for the trade or national media, so it is important to know your audience.

There is plenty of content out there on identifying what is and isn’t newsworthy. I’m not going to go over it here – all I will say is that a good news story will include Who, What, Where, When and Why at the very beginning.

If you don’t have the five Ws covered then you will struggle writing the article and writer’s block will no doubt follow.

Plan a full synopsis

Even with a press release that should take no longer than 30 minutes to draft, I will always write the first paragraph and then plan a synopsis. It makes life so much easier.

What are the key messages of the piece? What are the target keywords?  Will someone be quoted in the article? If so, what would they say? Where do people go for more information?

With feature synopses it is ways a good idea to try and answer a series of questions, in response to your introductory paragraph.

Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and start again

Sometimes the biggest barrier to writing something is that the content just isn’t topical, newsworthy, or just working full stop within the piece. If the content for the piece isn’t interesting then start again.

Starting again is only possible if you are in control of your workload and have some influence over the direction of the article.

Everyone has been a junior within an organisation and been landed with a brief that is so utterly devoid of any value that writing interesting copy for it is nigh on impossible.  If this is your situation then I feel your pain. We have all been there.  I could give you countless examples of the 1,000 word features that I have written on wing mirrors, spark plugs and other assorted detritus.

Unfortunately if you can’t renegotiate the brief then you are on a hiding to nothing.

Suck it up. Then move on.

Don’t just think about copy

Why struggle to write long form content when a paragraph and a photo might suffice?  Images and embedded content might tell the story much more succinctly than you can ever do in text.

I know what the SEO handbook says but sometimes, when it comes to high quality, engaging content, it is better just to ignore it and do what works.

So there you have it. Those were my thoughts on how to tackle writer’s block.  I’ve tried to keep my recommendations practical. If you have any other tips then let us know in the comments.

About James Crawford

James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.

  • Jesse Gilbert

    Nice article. Writer’s block is something all bloggers and writers encounter at some point. Using tools like http://www.brainstormpro.com to help Brainstorm content ideas can help too.