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10 Ways to Break Through Writer’s Block

Time clicks by on your phone and wristwatch. Your article, letter, report, email reply, or blog post is due at noon. How do you get around the obstacles that block your writing flow? Try these techniques.

Writer's block

1. Imagine you are talking with your reader. Think about the things your reader wants or needs to hear from you. Then “tell” (write) any part–beginning, middle, or end. Don’t worry about the perfect opening or a knock-’em-dead awesome close. Just start and keep going.

2. List the questions your reader would want answers to, such as “What do you want me to do?” and “What do you recommend?” and “Why should I care about this topic?” Answering those questions will get you started and help you continue. Start with any question, even the simple “Where do I get more information?” Learn more about this method in my online course Business Writing Tune-Up.

3. Write without censoring yourself. Pay no attention to whether the writing is good. Just let the words and ideas flow. Writing and marketing expert Ann Handley calls this step “Show up and throw up” in her book Everybody Writes: Your Go-to Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. After you have something to work with on the screen or legal pad, choose your “keepers” and build from them.

4. Ask yourself the question “Why am I stuck?” Focus on writing the answer to that question; then transition to the real writing when you have a clear answer. I myself do not use this approach, but other people insist that it works beautifully for them.

5. Strive for completion–not perfection. Your goal is to get out of the burning building fast, not to salvage every idea in pristine condition. Do not stop to polish each sentence. Reworking while you write takes too long. Besides that, you will often end up cutting the sentences you spent the most time on.

6. Review pieces of your past writing that make you feel proud. This look at good writing will build your confidence and may give you specific ideas about formats and approaches that work. (If the people who report to you are stuck in their writing projects, give them examples of their best work, and remind them of what they do well.)

7. Talk with people about what you are working on. Do not wait until you’re done to tell about your struggles. The screen and page are blank now. Get help. Throw out a question and reel in the answers. Then see if those answers and suggestions move you to the next step.

8. Take a break that includes a change of scenery, or shift to another activity. This break doesn’t need to focus on the coffee pot or snack machine. Check your to-do list to find something else you need to do. Maybe you need to approve art for a webpage. Maybe you have to return a borrowed book to your mentor. How about a quick walk around the block or the building? A registration for an upcoming workshop? A timely New York Times article to read? Just change what you are doing, even briefly.

9. Compare your writing project with something completely different, and think about how you would handle it. For instance, how would you move forward if the document were a fancy dinner you were going to prepare? A jigsaw puzzle you were just dumping out of the box? A garden you need to weed? A mountain peak you intend to scale? The ways you would approach those tasks may give you hints about what to do now.

10. Allow yourself to be awestruck. Look at something beautiful, for example, Diane Varner’s exquisite Daily Walks photos. Or listen to music that makes you feel yourself flying or skating or dancing. Engaging other parts of your brain with things of beauty and awe–even for a few moments–can loosen the stuck places in your thinking.

Bonus Tip. Although this tip doesn’t work at the last minute, it helps with writer’s block:

Start early. If your piece is due on Friday, start thinking about it the previous Friday. Come up with a topic, and then let your subconscious work on it over the weekend. You are likely to notice metaphors, examples, quotations, and other gems that will help you when it’s time to write.

Please share your tips for breaking through writer’s block.



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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