How to Beat Writer’s Block

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 13 seconds

file000909879658Writer’s block is a particularly nasty affliction and can make you feel pretty damn terrible, especially when your time is billed by the hour.

The truth is that while we are now required to create more and more content than ever before and even the very best authors suffer from writer’s block. It just… happens.

I’ll own up and declare that I recently had writer’s block and hadn’t posted here on State of Digital for a six month period. No matter how busy I was, I always used to be able to thrash out a blog post in a spare hour on a train or in a café. Yet, here I was struggling for six months with writer’s block! Admittedly I’m a busy person (but aren’t we all?), but as a PR person you would think that an 800-word blog post would be a piece of cake.

There is a lot written on the subject of writer’s block and I’m not going to regurgitate the countless articles about how to tackle it. In the interests of originality I thought I would share my own personal recommendations for tackling writer’s block.

Put aside time to write good content

If you are a busy person, then pay a visit to your favourite place, your home or a café  – wherever it is that you find you are able to focus the most – and set about planning your masterpiece.  My problem was mainly due to a lack of time, which meant I struggled to sit down for longer than five minutes.  I often tell my team to lock themselves away when they have a feature or a deadline. Some might be writing a 3,000-word report and choose to work from home.

Quality time in a non-distracting environment is important.

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Old School Problems

Discover the ‘real’ story

So many people dive straight into writing without thinking or planning the narrative.  Spend time, and I mean serious time, working out what the story is so that you can explain it to a friend or a colleague. Don’t plan out the full piece yet. Instead write a thirty second ‘pitch’.

Test the idea. Chat it through. Refine it and test it again.  Then you can move on to the more formal planning stage.

Does your post past the pub test?

Peer review is important, but why wait until an article is written to test your subject? Would your post pass for an interesting conversation down the pub? Or would it be taken seriously at an industry conference?  I often find the most argumentative person I know, put my ideas through their paces and then make sure that I respond to each and every point they raise. If you can’t think of a strong enough rebuttal to combat criticism with, then perhaps the premise of the story or feature needs to change.

Think about the wider context or narrative – and what can you add to it

Your story doesn’t exist in isolation. The chances are that unless you are very lucky, there are other stories already published on a similar theme.  Often people suffer writer’s block because when they look at what else is already published on the subject, they feel that it has already been covered.   A good writer will turn this problem on its head.

For example, why is the existing conventional wisdom wrong? What have others missed? What questions do other articles raise that need answering? Inspiration can be found from other people’s work and without plagiarising.

Start at the beginning and spend time crafting your opening

Now that you have tested the idea you are ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard.)

Before writing the full synopsis, focus on the opening paragraph. If you get the opening right then the subsequent 800 words will write themselves, more or less.

The opening paragraph is very important in feature writing and so is the first paragraph of a press release.

The most basic tip I can give for writing a blog post or a feature is to set up the challenge faced, or the opportunity or the big question that is going to be answered, in the first paragraph.

This does not apply for press releases, which need to be written in news-style.

Is your story topical or newsworthy?

It is hard to say whether having a nose for newsworthy content is taught or caught.

Something is newsworthy if it is interesting, topical, notable, noteworthy, important, significant, historic, remarkable or sensational.  One man’s news is another man’s fish and chip paper and something might be of interest to the regional media will not automatically be so for the trade or national media, so it is important to know your audience.

There is plenty of content out there on identifying what is and isn’t newsworthy. I’m not going to go over it here – all I will say is that a good news story will include Who, What, Where, When and Why at the very beginning.

If you don’t have the five Ws covered then you will struggle writing the article and writer’s block will no doubt follow.

Plan a full synopsis

Even with a press release that should take no longer than 30 minutes to draft, I will always write the first paragraph and then plan a synopsis. It makes life so much easier.

What are the key messages of the piece? What are the target keywords?  Will someone be quoted in the article? If so, what would they say? Where do people go for more information?

With feature synopses it is ways a good idea to try and answer a series of questions, in response to your introductory paragraph.

Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and start again

Sometimes the biggest barrier to writing something is that the content just isn’t topical, newsworthy, or just working full stop within the piece. If the content for the piece isn’t interesting then start again.

Starting again is only possible if you are in control of your workload and have some influence over the direction of the article.

Everyone has been a junior within an organisation and been landed with a brief that is so utterly devoid of any value that writing interesting copy for it is nigh on impossible.  If this is your situation then I feel your pain. We have all been there.  I could give you countless examples of the 1,000 word features that I have written on wing mirrors, spark plugs and other assorted detritus.

Unfortunately if you can’t renegotiate the brief then you are on a hiding to nothing.

Suck it up. Then move on.

Don’t just think about copy

Why struggle to write long form content when a paragraph and a photo might suffice?  Images and embedded content might tell the story much more succinctly than you can ever do in text.

I know what the SEO handbook says but sometimes, when it comes to high quality, engaging content, it is better just to ignore it and do what works.

So there you have it. Those were my thoughts on how to tackle writer’s block.  I’ve tried to keep my recommendations practical. If you have any other tips then let us know in the comments.

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James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.

State of Digital

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5 ways writers make boring topics more interesting

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It’s no fun to come up with blog ideas for the boring industries outside of search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing. You know what I mean—the real world of forklifts, car dealerships, garden furniture and bedding. Even coming up with new content for your blog can be a bit tough.

Every day my blog-writing service must come up with 10-20 blog post ideas for clients in a number of diverse industries. Sometimes the industries are easy, like mobile phones or SEO, but more often than not we need blog post ideas for companies in less interesting industries. (No offense intended.)

Download this free white paper to learn how to tell compelling stories that navigate through the noise, boost your brand and drive sales.

I’m going to share how we brainstorm content ideas so you can always come up with some—even on those uninspiring rainy days.

1. Pull from magazines.

We always add magazines to our office’s weekly shopping list.

We buy all kinds of magazines, from those about gossip and arts and crafts to gardening and technology.

Is it because we’re interested in the latest gossip? Well, yes, but the main reason is much more professional: Magazine topics and headlines are brilliant for blog inspiration.

Do we just plagiarize the magazines and use their ideas? Of course not. Magazines spark some great ideas that we can talk about in our blog posts, and they show us the kinds of stories people in a particular industry want to read.

For example, say we have a client who sells garden furniture. I’m not going to brainstorm ideas exclusively about garden furniture—how boring would that be? Cover the breadth of the industry to make an interesting post.

Because it’s a garden industry client, I’ll flip through a gardening magazine. I’ll stumble across the article “Really fast growers!” about the fastest-growing plants. That sparks some interesting blog post ideas, such as:

  • The 7 fastest-growing plants for your garden
  • In a hurry? Check out these fast-growing plants and flowers
  • Fast plants: Plants that grow at an extraordinary speed

With some research I can find enough information and data sources to come up with an amazing blog post that will not only interest the gardening community, but be educational. This is great for the brand, because even if the brand only sells garden furniture, it will create brand awareness through education.

2. Play word association games.

A great way to do this is to get some members of your team. One person starts with a root word. This could be the name of the industry you or your client is in. The next person says something related to that root word.

It might go a little like this:

  1. SEO (root word)
  2. Link building
  3. Marketing
  4. Advertising
  5. Copywriting
  6. Writing

Don’t get too far from your root word, but by thinking of out of the box content ideas, you can explore some similar and complementary areas to your client’s sector. I started with “SEO,” but ended with “copywriting” and “writing,” which are topics those in SEO could be interested in.

I could conjure up a post idea like:

  • “Copywriting 101 for SEO pros”
  • “An SEO pro’s guide to creative writing”

I could explore these topics further and come up with some more appetizing titles, but you get the idea. If you don’t have people to play this game with, you could do it yourself with pen and paper.

 

As you can see, I started with the word “gardening.” I put some related words around it, and added other words where I could. When you have a few words on your page, you can start to conjure up some ideas.

There are a few branches that come off from “plants”: “largest plants” and “strange plants.” I could start a blog post about “the world’s largest plants” or “the world’s strangest plants.”

Instead of writing posts for my garden furniture client about “How to assemble your garden furniture” or “The top 10 garden furniture arrangements,” I went out of the box a bit. People who buy garden furniture aren’t interested in garden furniture—they’re interested in gardening.

3. Borrow from other industries.

Sometimes you just can’t get much interest from an industry. The best thing to do is borrow some from another industry.

What do I mean by this? Let’s go with gardening again.

You have exhausted all topics about gardening. Now what?

Try using another industry, like technology, apps, software, celebrities or gadgets to spark some more blog post ideas. For example:

  • “Gardening technology in 2013”
  • “Top 5 iPhone apps for beginner gardeners”
  • “Manage your garden from your PC: gardening software”
  • “Celebrity gardens: How does yours match up?”
  • “5 low-priced gardening gadgets that will save you tons of time”

As you can see, I came up with a number of ideas just by cross-referencing other industries. Try this with your industry and see how many new blog post ideas you can conjure up.

4. Use Flipboard.

Flipboard is a great way to come up with blog post ideas because it gets you away from your desk (it is only available on tablets and mobile devices), and it’s intuitive to use. Flipping through articles on any given topic can do great things to inspire the brain.

Flipboard is available in both the iTunes and Play store, and is completely free. It’s kind of like an RSS reader, but it works based on the topics you give it, and you can build your own boards. I use it at least once a day.

For blog post ideas, use the search function. Search for the name of your industry or topic, and find the latest stories from all over the Web about it.

Below is a screenshot from my iPhone of a search for “gardening.” You can see a few of the gardening stories from across the Web.

My favorite way to use Flipboard is away from my desk on an iPad. As John Le Carre once said, “ A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

5. Browse spammy curator sites.

I don’t know the correct term for these sites, but I sometimes stumble across them when I get lost on the Web. I bet you’ve come across a few, too. They are basically sites about celebrities, strange and unbelievable things or crazy things.

Sometimes they just curate stories and send you to another site. They do a lot of traffic sharing, and make money from ads.

I can’t help but stay and look around at the amazing titles they come up with. I’ve even bookmarked a few of the sites so I can go back and get inspiration.

These sites won’t help you come up with actual content, but they will give you some great title ideas. The people that make these sites and write the titles are pretty clever. They know what makes people click.

As you can see from this photo, there are some great headline ideas:

Borrow the format of these titles for your posts (but maybe not the Beyoncé one). The actual content of these articles is not exactly what they promise—most of the time they are disappointing—but you can’t knock the titles.

Joe Davies co-founded Fat Joe, a guest blog posting service. A version of this article originally appeared on Moz.com.

(Image via)
Ragan.com

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