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The Fight Against (Web) Writer's Block

Evan Maier

Bad DayNo one said writing was easy.  It's a reality I face every day, as my eyes again and again meet their old nemesis: the blank canvas of an empty Word document.  Of course, if you're a writer, marketer, PR pro, advertising guru, tagline sherpa, or any one of a host of other job titles involving (really, requiring) a creative and masterful hold over the written word, then you too understand the inherent fear that accompanies the vastness of an empty page.  Of course, not everyone crafts meaningful, clever prose on a daily basis.  Perhaps it's not in their job title or area of expertise.  Maybe they simply don't have the training.  Whatever the reason, it's safe to say that if struggling through writer's block is akin to undergoing a personal, albeit brief, Spanish Inquisition for a writer such as myself, one can only imagine the paralyzing agony non-writers must go through to get their abstract concepts onto the page.  I work with clients like these all the time, which is why I thought overcoming writer's block to be a fitting topic for my latest blog post.  Read on to see my list of best cures for (web) writer's block.


Won't somebody think of the audience?!

Unlike with any other form of writing, writing for the web requires a very specific brand of messaging.  Your audience could be the most niche micro-fraction of the internet's user base or it could be a sprawling amalgamation of utterly dissimilar groups of people.  No one ever stumbled into a movie or found themselves subconsciously reading a particular column of a magazine or newspaper without having some preconceived notion of doing so.  But withthe nature of the web being a sprawling web of connected "relevant" content, chances are you're going to catch some eyeballs that need to be reminded of why they are on your site.  Because of this unshakable reality, you need to have your targeted messages in order.  So before you start drafting your "Why We're The Best" page, go do some homework to determine your demographics (both the actual and the ideal).  The good news is, the longer you spend nailing down your audience and exactly what messages they like (or need) to hear (you know, standard marketing stuff), the easier it will be to actually write to them.  Just make sure that whatever you do, you aren't writing to search engines as your audience - no one should have to endure those garbage pages of non sequitur keyword lists.


Map It Out

A trick in the business world for cutting through the day-to-day to see the bigger picture is leveraging the power of mind mapping.  The idea behind a mind map is to take a central concept, word, symbol, etc. and map out everything that is related to it.  Then, you map all the things related to each of the ideas surrounding that first central concept.  The map grows, each concept connects to new ideas, and on and on until you start to see patterns in the words or concepts or images that have filled your map.  So, let's say your brand logo features a lion.  Mapped to that would be ideas of pride, power, strength, etc.  From "pride," you could then map out togetherness, cooperation, etc.  Suddenly, you are seeing aspects of your brand you hadn't even realized before and realize that maybe the selection of the lion as your logo wasn't so random.  The brand's identity becomes clearer and thus, writing within the confines of that identity becomes easier.  How easy was that?

All-too-brief aside: site maps.  Unlike the more conceptual heavy lifting mind mapping achieves, analyzing your site map helps you connect your site's pages from a usability standpoint.  If you're finding yourself at a content dead end, go back to your site map to figure out how what you're trying to write fits into the greater picture.  How do you envision your user interacting withthis page?  What purpose does it serve from your brand's perspective?  Asking questions like these will help unearth aspects of the page you may not have even known (or even entire pages you didn't realize were necessary).  And once you know how your page should work, writing the content to get your user there should be that much easier.


Nike Had It Right

Just do it.  Write, that is.  There's a reason free writing is all the rage in middle school classrooms all over the country.  No, it's not because America's teachers want 45 minutes to catch up on US Weekly.  It's because writing without a fear of rambling, the shackles of punctuation and grammar, or an escape plan for the ending helps us tap into our subconsciouses and melon ball the brilliant nuggets that lie dormant within.  The key to this technique is to choose a subject (I'd suggest the page you're writing for, but if you want to rant on unicorns, be my guest), set a timeline (the longer the better, but don't go crazy - I'm sure you have deadlines, after all), and simply write for the entire time.  Don't stop to think.  Don't edit.  Don't re-read.  Just write.  Once the clock is up, take a look at what you turned out.  Chances are most of it will be garbage, but if you can glean even a sliver of brilliance from all the muck, you've given yourself a much-needed compass to help get yourself back on the right path.


Make Friends with Bullets

No, I'm not talking about the kind trigger-happy "enthusiasts" purchase by the box at Walmart.  I'm talking about bullet lists.  In all honesty, prose is just a few floating fragments chained together by grammar and punctuation.  So when struggling with getting everything from your brain onto the page, why not eschew one or two aspects of the whole process and focus on the most essential element?  Like free writing, think of bulleted lists as your opportunity to toss out the nagging rules of grammar, punctuation, and tone (at least temporarily).  It's your opportunity to lay the all-important foundation without worrying about the intricate facade that will later encase it.  So if you're tackling a complete embodiment of the company history, don't think of it as paragraphs, but as a list of key facts.  Once you have your list of must-have info in place, filling in the gaps is merely a revisitation of 8th grade grammar.


Go Fly a Kite

Or see a movie.  Or meditate.  Or read a blog (say, this one, for example).  There are any number of things you can do to distance yourself from the work at hand, but more often than not, staring at your computer screen until your retinas burn out isn't going to make your House-esque epiphany come to you any sooner.  I've often had my most brilliant and unexpected epiphanies about my writing when completely immersed in something wholly unrelated.  So stand up, walk away, and give your brain a break.  Who knows what it will come up with when finally given some air to breathe.


Of course, there are countless other ways to overcome writer's block, and I'm confident some experimentation will help find a right-fitting cure for you and the non-writers you work with.  If a particular method I haven't mentioned above works for you, let's hear about it in the comments!