© 2009, Diana Morris and Doug Davin

Writer’s block. Usually said with the same tone we might use for “root canal” or “audit,” writer’s block is the frustration of being stumped by a writing task. No ideas are flowing, or the ones that are seem silly, clunky, or somehow not quite right. As your frustration builds, so does the panic of knowing you’re wasting time you probably don’t have to waste.

Just about everyone can relate. In fact, ask any group of business people to name the toughest part of a writing task, and we bet they’ll answer with, “Getting started” or “Getting past writer’s block.” We would too. Even after years of writing thousands of first drafts for business clients, we run smack into writer’s block more often than we’d like to admit.

Here are our best strategies for busting some of the more insistent causes of writer’s block:

Symptom: Nothing you write seems clever enough.

The block: You’re trying to be creative instead of clear.

Smash it!
Take the pressure off yourself. You’re not trying to write the next bestseller. Your writing simply has to be clear, fact based, audience centered, and brief. Season with your insights and thoughtful next steps and great ideas, and voila: done!

Ironically, with the pressure off, people are often able to create better quality writing. “I never realized,” said Neil, an operations manager at a local hospital, “how much harder I was making it on myself than I needed to. It’s amazing what you can write when you stop trying to be a great literary voice.”

Symptom: Your writing seems to wander.

The block: A fuzzy goal. You’re not sure what you want to accomplish.

Smash it!
Picture your stressed, pressed-for-time readers saying: “Pleeease! Tell me what this is about, why I should care, what’s in it for me, and what you want me to do next!”

If you truly want to prevent the frustration of wasting time on aimless writing, be sure you’ve got a clear answer to What’s your point? and the sharper the better. So rather than, “I need to let her know the status on the Atlantic Call Center,” think: “I’ve got to tell her the impact that last month’s delay will have on customers who’ll be serviced out of the Atlantic Call Center next year, and give her my suggestions for ways we can be out ahead of customer complaints. This will be important to her because keeping positive customer perceptions at the 90 percent level is one of her key goals.”

Symptom: Everything you write sounds too formal.

The block: Maybe it is too formal. You may be trying to put something in writing that should be a conversation or meeting topic.

Smash it!
To make our work lives as easy as possible, especially when we’re under pressure, we default to our strongest skill. This means that if you like to think out loud, you’ll want to handle everything verbally. If you thrive on lively debate with coworkers, you’ll wait for the next meeting. And if writing comes easily to you—or if you tend to prefer it to other ways of communicating—you’ll use this strength more often than not, even when it may not be the best way to connect with your audience and get the results you’re after.

We may struggle to put things in writing for other reasons too. Sending an email can be easier than facing someone when the topic is awkward or upsetting. It can be far less stressful to spend gobs of time writing a resume and finessing a cover letter than it is to pick up the phone and invite someone to coffee or lunch to network with them about job opportunities.

Should you or shouldn’t you?
Think twice about whether to put your message in writing when you need to:

• Deliver bad news, especially to criticize someone’s work; Better: a scheduled conversation with any documentation you need.
• Resolve a conflict. Better: a live conversation (on the phone or, even better, in person).
• Avoid facing and talking to someone. Better: make the effort to talk (on the phone or, even better, in person).
• Debate an issue, especially with a group of people. Better: schedule a meeting during which all sides can be heard simultaneously.
• Get an immediate answer. Better: a live conversation (on the phone or, even better, in person).
• Create consensus quickly, especially on an important topic. Better: schedule a meeting where all sides can be heard simultaneously.
• Handle a crisis or urgent issue. (Much) better: in-person meetings or conversations.

Symptom: Nothing you write seems right: “They’ll probably just think that’s ridiculous…” “I think they know this already…” “I’m not sure this group will care about the program change...”

The block: Probably...I think...I’m not sure: all signals that you haven’t taken enough time to think about your audience: what they think, want, and need to know.

Smash it!
Together we’ve logged more than 40 years in the communications field, and in that time, we’ve seen knock-your-socks-off great business writing and writing that was…well, not so great. The great writing may have been short or long. It may have been written to encourage people, stir them to action, debate an issue, persuade, analyze, propose, or sell. It may have been in print or online, or written to be delivered in a rousing speech. But one quality unites every superior piece of business communication we’ve ever seen: it knows its audience.

Business writing at its best is not about you. It’s about your readers. Everything you plan, look up, include, exclude...it’s all about them. Effective writing never begins with the question, “What do I want to say?” Instead, your starting point is, “What do my readers want/need to know?”

Symptom: You just can’t seem to make your idea sound convincing.

The block: You need to do more research.

Smash it!
If you’ve ever taken a car trip with kids, chances are you’ve heard, “Are we there yet?” They want to go from the abstract promise of “vacation” to the concrete beach, park, Nana’s house. “Where is it? How close are we? How much looooonger?!”

Okay, so let’s admit it: we all feel this way. We are busy. We’re juggling at least five things at once. Abstract ideas and concepts are just not enough to grab and hold our attention. We want validation and concrete information, applications, and examples. “How will this work? How do you know for sure? Who said? When did that happen? Who was there? How are other teams or companies handling this?”

Take another look at your research. What more can you do? Where else can you look? Who else can you call to gather more information to prove or bolster your idea?

Symptom: You write and groan. Delete and rewrite. Delete some more, try to write some more and then notice an interesting article in the stack of magazines on the desk or remember that website you wanted to check out...

The block: You’re editing, not writing, or trying to do both at the same

Smash it!
One of the things people find most challenging is writing a sloppy, just-get-it-down-on-paper first draft or pre-draft, sometimes approaching it with dread and even embarrassment. With all that self-created pressure bearing down on them, they freeze as if the first words to come off their fingers must be perfect because the whole world will see them.

Writing is three different steps: 1) map your content, 2) write a draft, and 3) edit. You can’t mix them up just like you can’t bake a cake before you mix the batter or put the car in gear and your foot on the gas before you turn the key. In fact, nothing slows the writing process more surely than editing when you should be writing, judging every word and sentence as you’re writing it.

It’s time for some personal encouragement. Find a private spot and tell yourself:

• “This is a first draft, not a final one.”
• “No one else ever has to see it.”
• “It doesn’t have to make sense or be in any logical order.”

Writing is a process. Take it easy, be patient with yourself, follow the process and the whole thing works better. So write when you should be writing, and edit when you should be editing.

Author's Bio: 

Doug Davin and Diana Morris are authors and coaches at www.breakthroughskills.com, a professional self-improvement community and webstore. Their original resources—Rapid-Read™ Handbooks and Workbooks, free BTS QuickTools?, Breakthrough Coaching, Workshops, and Telesession calls—zero-in on seven Breakthrough Skills you need to reach the highest levels of success and enjoy your work—every day.

“You know you’ve got a great future ahead of you. We know it too, and we’re serious about helping you.” Contact them at info@breakthroughskills.com or call toll-free: 1-877-512-3400.

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