What have you written lately and how much did you struggle with it?
If you’re in PR or content marketing, you probably write quite a bit: contributed articles, pitches, messaging foundations, press releases, blog posts and other projects. The demand for content just keeps rising. But the fast pace of our industry finds many of us confronting the challenge of a blank page – what Ernest Hemingway called “the white bull” – on a tight deadline.
Sometimes that’s our fault. Plenty of PR pros will happily dive in and edit other people’s work, but then procrastinate when it comes to starting their own projects. They’ll squirm and say they’ll write it Friday; no, they’ll do it on the weekend when they can focus on it; wait, they don’t want to work on the weekend, so they’ll write Monday come hell or high water.
When they really get started: as the deadline stares them mercilessly in the face.
And then it gets terrifying. That blank white screen. The 800 or 1200 or 2000 words that need to appear. The clock ticking away the minutes.
The words aren’t coming. So the writer tries a sentence or two, waiting for inspiration to turn on like a faucet. Once that happens, they figure they’ll be “in the flow” and the rest will pour out like lava.
Their opening lines sound flat, lifeless. They force out a paragraph. But it’s crap and they know it. They delete it and check their email, then work on something else… And suddenly it’s two hours closer to deadline and that blank page is staring them in the face.
Every busy PR pro who’s suffered a bout of writer’s block knows how this feels. We don’t have the luxury of lounging around and waiting for our Muse to descend. Our hectic schedules demand that we crank out a good, on-message, smoothly written piece now.
Talk about pressure, right? So here are 11 tips for battling writer’s block on a deadline.
1. Do an outline. This doesn’t require any creativity. It’s purely cognitive. Map out your primary message and supporting points. Describe them in basic sentences and don’t worry about being smooth or clever.
2. Diagnose the blockage. Maybe there’s one part of the project that intimidates you because it’s not your area of expertise. Maybe it’s a topic that bores you stiff. You can try to force your way through, but this could be a sign that the project is flawed at a conceptual level and needs to go in a different direction.
3. Break long projects into pieces. Going from a blank page to a finished ebook can feel daunting. Make it manageable by breaking the development process into chunks. Maybe on Tuesday, you’ll outline what you want to say and list any points to be researched; on Wednesday you’ll research; Thursday, you’ll organize your notes into order and Friday you’ll start shaping it all into a rough draft.
4. Limit your writing time. The more disinterested you are in writing a certain piece, the more likely you are to postpone it. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll write for one hour and then move on to something more enticing. It’ll feel less burdensome when you know you have a hard stop, and you’ll probably be surprised at what you can get done in that hour.
5. Silence your imaginary critic. Spend too much time imagining your client’s reaction or an editor’s opinion and you’ll wind up creatively paralyzed. Of course, if your work is constantly denounced and rewritten by clients and bosses, you’ll wind up in a cycle of writing stiff, cautious work that sparks more criticism, freezing you up even more, etc. At that point, there’s a deeper problem than an individual piece.
6. Dictate your thoughts. Hit the red button on your favorite recording app and talk about what you know. Don’t try to arrange the flow of your thoughts; just let yourself go. This can be a great way to get around the physical disconnect between your brain and your fingers.
7. Do some writing exercises. Such as…
• Pretend you’re a competitor or foe writing about your client’s brand. What horrible things would they say? You’ll automatically mount arguments to the contrary.
• Write fanfic. Yes, really. Pick your favorite characters – superheroes, Game of Thrones villains, Don Draper, whoever – and imagine they’re involved. They’re testing the product, reacting to an event, writing an Internet comment. Your perspective will be jolted into a fresher, creative place.
• Write an imaginary interview between your thought leader and a top influencer. Pretend the influencer is asking your client or executive questions, then answer them. At some point, you’ll have all the salient points mapped out and probably tap into the flow of the piece.
8. Make sure a break is really a break. “Take a walk” is common advice for dealing with writer’s block. I would amend that to “change your environment and mindset completely.” Just strolling around your office or talking shop with a coworker isn’t going to jolt you out of your creative paralysis. Do something radically un-worklike such as a yoga class before coming back to your project.
9. Read what others have written on the topic. This isn’t about imitation. This is about seeing where you agree and disagree and thinking of how you’ll write something better.
10. Turn off distractions. Inspiration is a lovely concept but sometimes we just need to push and push until the breakthrough happens. Use a program like Freedom to shut down your Internet access, hand your phone to a coworker and hunker down.
11. Let go of perfection. Not everything you write is going to glow with genius – and that’s okay. You’re not painting the Sistine Chapel here. You’re a busy communications professional who’s trying to get your client’s or company’s message into the public eye. Wanting to do your best is commendable but there’s a reason they say procrastination is a form of perfectionism. And in business, done is better than perfect.
As a content developer, you’ll confront many white bulls in your future. With the right tricks, you can slay them all.