By: Ryan Wilkinson, Account Coordinator
Raise your hand if you’ve ever stared at a blank Word document or sheet of paper, deadline looming, with an idea in your head and no clue how to translate it into written word. If that describes you right now, don’t panic just yet! Whether you’re a PR pro, working on a passion project, or thinking back to grade school essays, anyone who has written has experienced writer’s block. It’s truly frustrating for writers of all levels, and can create a negative internal feedback loop that could stifle your writing in the long term.
Everyone is different, and since writing is a creative endeavor, everyone approaches it differently. However, I’ve found that the process I’ll lay out here was able to help me through all kinds of writing projects, from college literature analysis to blog posts on big data, and I believe it can help you too! Follow these three steps, and you should be able to wrangle those stubborn ideas together in a way that your readers can clearly understand.
Step 1: Put Your Thoughts on Paper
Okay, I know this sounds overly simplistic, but I’m not asking you to churn out a full, well-composed essay in one go. This is your brainstorming phase. It might be messy, and it might not make sense to anyone else, and that’s okay! The important thing is that you take the ideas in your head and put them all into one space you can refer back to later. Even the ideas you aren’t sure will make the final cut should go here; it’s better to have too much to draw from than not enough!
There are a lot of forms this can take, and each has its own pros and cons, depending on your writing style. Some people like to take a more stream-of-consciousness or “blind writing” approach, where they give themselves a set amount of time and try to constantly write the entire time in an attempt to wring all of their ideas out through brute force. Personally, I’m a fan of the outline (you better believe this post was an outline first), where I can create a structure and fill it with thoughts, whether they’re a couple of vague words or fully thought-out sentences, as they come to me. Depending on the form your project will take, starting with a simple list or chart can go a long way toward organizing your thoughts. At the end of the day, the structure isn’t important; this step is for you, and you should experiment until you find a method that works with your writing style!
Step 2: Add Some Structure
Starting the first draft is what most people dread, but with your brainstorming out of the way it should come easily. You’re taking your first stab at a document that will (probably) look something like your finished piece, but once again, try not to feel pressured to make it look pretty. It’s still just the first draft, and there will be plenty of time to polish it up later. The goal here is to take the ideas that you wrote down in step 1 and put them into the structure that you’ll use for your final draft. If you went with an outline earlier this step will go quickly, since you’re essentially just turning your ideas into full sentences. But if you used another brainstorming technique, that’s okay too! This is where you’ll see your structure emerge, and you might have to do some rearranging to put everything in an order that makes sense.
Personally, I find that introductions and conclusions are usually the most difficult parts of any project for me to write. It can feel overwhelming to look at a blank page, knowing what information you need to convey but not how to start! If you’re stuck here, try to move on and get some of your body written out. Once you get the creative juices flowing and spend some time with the subject matter, you should have a much better idea of exactly what you’re introducing and how to position it to your reader.
Step 3: Polish
Now that you have your thoughts on paper and in the right order, it’s time to put on your editor’s hat. Read through your piece for flow; although you made sure to put everything in order to make sense before, now you’ll want to make sure you don’t have any chunks that are jarring or confusing to the reader because they should have been elsewhere in the piece, or needed a little more introduction. One trick I use is to read through the piece out loud; if I stumble over anything, chances are it needs revision. It can also help to give yourself time away from your piece between writing and editing. I’ll often wait until the next day to edit something so I can come at it with a fresh mind, ready to find any problem areas.
Beyond that, the biggest part of this step is looking at your tone and how your piece reads. This skill comes from experience, so don’t feel discouraged if you have some trouble! Getting feedback from friends and colleagues is one of the best ways to adjust your writing to make sure it’s easy and enjoyable for others to read. Another great way to figure out what to aim for is to look at pieces written for the same purpose. For example, if I’m working with a client to draft a contributed article, I’ll read some other articles from the outlet we’re contributing to in order to get a feel for the kind of writing they like to publish. If you’re working with an editor, they’ll really appreciate it if you make their job easy by adhering to any guidelines their publication maintains.
Remember, since all writing (and every person) is different, there is no set process that will work for everyone in every situation. However, these three steps will help you get past that terrifying blank page and on the road to a final draft!