I have written press releases, magazine articles, website copy and even comedy sketches for the past decade. Just because I’ve spent my career writing, however, doesn’t mean the writing process has gotten any easier. In fact, I re-wrote this intro six times before I settled on what you’re reading.
Writing is very much a skill that improves with practice, but a little guidance never hurt. I find that where people need help the most is at the beginning, so I want to share two tips that help me when I’m staring at a blank screen.
I recently attended a writing workshop taught by Dr. Roy Peter Clark of The Poynter Institute where he discussed 50 Writing Tools. All of them are extremely helpful, but Clark’s tip to spend time rehearsing before you start writing is invaluable.
It may sound strange to tell someone to start writing by not writing, but people practice what they’re going to say before job interviews and marriage proposals. Why should writing be any different? Taking as little as five minutes to look away from the screen and plan out what you are going to say can be the best way to break through writer’s block early in the process.
Recently, I was struggling with writing a blog post for a client. I would type the first paragraph, then delete it and start over. After doing this a few times, I finally realized I had skipped my rehearsal. So, I grabbed a notebook and walked to Chick-fil-A for lunch. On the walk over, I ran through the intro in my head. Between bites of a grilled chicken sandwich I jotted down notes, and before finishing my meal I had not only an outline but the first few paragraphs of the post. Within an hour of sitting back down at my desk the draft was finished.
Don’t Start at the Beginning
Because people start reading at the beginning, they often think writing should start at the beginning, too. I liken this to a painter starting at the top of his or her canvas and trying to paint the finished piece top to bottom. Paintings are built layer by layer from the background to the foreground, and good writing should be done in the same way. Do you remember when your high school teacher had you outline your essay before starting to write? That actually wasn’t a waste of time. Good writing regardless of length or topic starts with the main ideas. Then, add supporting information, segues and sentence structure over these main ideas one after another. Often with this process, I find it best to write the beginning and ending last, since they often set up and reprise the main points of the piece.
You may think this approach only applies to narrative writing, but marketing copy and even social media posts should be developed with the same process.
- Start with the main idea of your copy
- Layer in supporting details
- Finish with carefully chosen words to help influence your audience
Beginning a writing project is always the hardest part. A blank screen and a word count of zero are intimidating things. But if you plan out what you’re going to say and don’t try to nail the perfect draft from the very first word, then the project will go much smoother.