Let’s say you’ve got to write an important document—a proposal, a tricky email response, a lengthy technical report—and you just can’t get started. It happens to everyone.
You’ll usually find that as soon as you start putting your thoughts on paper—no matter how disorganized they are—the document will start taking shape. But getting those first thoughts on the page is difficult. What should you do? The key is just to start.
Following are some unorthodox but proven steps you can take to push through this difficult moment and get to writing.
1. Say it out loud first
If you’re stuck at the blank page, one great trick is to talk it out. Find someone who will listen, have that person ask you what you need to write, and then talk it through in casual, unforced language.
As you hear yourself articulate what you hope to accomplish with the document, you’ll find yourself jumping to your keyboard and saying, “Hey, I should use that.” You might hear an outline emerging for your document’s main sections, or a great point you want to make.
Because you’ve given yourself permission to organize your thoughts out loud—away from the blank page—you’ll tap into your creativity. Related tip: Make sure you’re near your computer.
2. Don’t start with a blank page
Why start with a blank page at all? Make it a non-blank page.
When you fire up a new document, immediately start typing something, anything, about the subject—whom the document is going to, when it’s due, a couple of ideas for sections, anything you can think of.
This has the psychological benefit of giving you something to stare at other than a blank page. It also gives you some content right away that you can fix, build on, edit, rewrite or delete—all of which are often easier than writing from scratch.
3. Push the page down
If Tip #2 doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean you have to stare at an entire blank screen. Let’s hide some of it.
Seriously. Grab the top of the word processor’s blank document (or blank email message) and drag some of it down “below” your screen, until only the top portion of the document is visible.
Now you can concentrate on only a small piece of blank real estate—just enough to focus on your title or introduction.
4. Write as casual an introduction as possible
Often our belief that what we’re writing needs to be formal—and perfect—keeps us from being able to start at all. One trick is simply to give yourself permission to start your document as informally as you can.
Imagine: You return from a tradeshow, where you gathered information for your organization. Your management team asks you to write a summary of your trip and send it to the executive staff. How do you begin? As casually as you can.
I’m back from the industry conference, and I’ve gathered some interesting information about new solutions we should consider. Here’s what I learned:
That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now you have a jumping-off point, you’ve built the foundation for an easy-to-digest list to write your main points, and you’ve told your reader in just a few words what your document will give them.
Sometimes you’ll look back at your opening and think, “No, that’s too informal,” and you can rewrite it accordingly. But often you’ll find that the most casual introduction makes for the most professional and reader-friendly document.
5. Write a list
Lists are excellent written communication tools. They’re a great way to organize a lot of information into an easy-to-read format that everyone understands. In any professional document you write—a report, letter, press release, you name it—include lists whenever possible.
So, if you’re having trouble starting a document, figure out what list you can include—and start writing it, no matter where it’ll appear. The important thing is, you’ll have a psychological boost from getting started. Just type “1.”
Here’s a great story from economist and author Thomas Sowell.
A tourist walking the boardwalk of a famous city spots a caricaturist. He approaches the artist, asks for a drawing of himself, and sits down while the caricaturist does his work. Just four minutes later, the artist presents him with a brilliant caricature. The tourist is pleased.
“What do I owe you?” the tourist asks.
“Thirty dollars,” the artist says.
“Thirty dollars?” asks the tourist. “You’re kidding, right? That took you four minutes!”
“No,” says the artist. “It took me 20 years and four minutes.”
Writing is similar. We all have computers and word-processing software. And, in a literal sense, we all know how to write—we know spelling, grammar, punctuation, layout, structure and tone. Because of this, I think, many non-writers believe writing should be easy—and they get frustrated and discouraged when it turns out not to be.
So, why did I tell you this story? Don’t be so hard on yourself. Writing is damn hard work. And almost nobody—least of all a professional writer—is ever satisfied with what they’ve written.
Unintentionally funny tagline from a company that sold data about computer chips:
If you find a component in our database, it probably doesn’t exist.
Two things missing here:
- A well placed “don’t” or “can’t.”
This could have been a very powerful selling message for this company’s component database—if the writer had spent just a minute or two proofreading it.
The lesson: When you’re finished writing, put your document away for a while—at least a day, if possible—and then proofread it slowly. Better yet, have someone else proof it for you.
Spend more time than you think is necessary to review any written work before sending it out to the world. It’s always better to overdo your proofreading.