Use structural approach to manage writer’s block

Janet Arrowood

You probably write dozens of emails and other documents over the course of a week: articles, manuals, performance appraisals, proposals, reports and more. Most of these materials are time sensitive and mission critical. 

But sometimes the words just won’t come. When you’re faced with a blank email, document template or sheet of paper — along with a deadline — everything you wanted to say simply packs up and hides out What’s a writer to do? 

Writer’s block is a state of mind that can be managed by applying a structured approach to document design and drafting. 

Start with a blank screen and type anything you can think of that might be a key point. If you’re working in a group, do the same thing using whiteboards in a conference room or paper in someone’s office. Don’t worry about the order or relative importance of the information — just capture your thoughts and ideas.

Now prioritize the key points you’ve noted. You could print a copy or work on the whiteboard or paper. Assign numbers to each point, then reorganize them in sequential order. Along the way you could decide some of the ideas you noted are either not relevant or subordinate to another point. Place these subpoints under the applicable key points. It’s important to only use each point or subpoint once to avoid repetition and confusion later. Now jot two to four subpoints under each main point, being careful to avoid repetition. 

You’ve just created an outline — the key to writing a logical, non-repetitive document while managing writers and writer’s block. You can use this outline in many ways: as a management tool to keep supervisors in the loop and get their buy-in before adding text, as a coordination tool by adding deadlines and responsibilities or as a “co-author” and subject matter expert (SME) herding tool by assigning page and word counts to each person’s key points in the outline. You might want to capture the information in your outline in Excel or a Word table. Then you have a useful management, coordination and collaboration tool.

Now that the critical information is captured, structured, organized, approved and assigned, it becomes easier to write your document. Instead of writing “in serial” and going through the key points in order, you can hop around, using key points and subpoints to keep you on track and take breaks without losing your place. You’re writing “in parallel,” which enables you to write each section out of order while using the outline to keep focused. This same freedom applies to your co-authors and SMEs. They, too, can write in whatever order moves them. Of course, all of the sections eventually will have to be written. Listing and organizing key points also offers an effective process for writing short, focused, emails.

An outline can serve two additional purposes beyond easing writer’s block. First, it enables you to manage the managers by getting their input and support while your document is in the planning stage. An organized approach reassures even the most micro of managers you’re on top of things and so organized they can rely on you to get the document written on time. Second, when several authors provide inputs — especially SMEs who could procrastinate and then give you an information dump at the last minute — you can manage them, too. How? By assigning paragraph and word counts to each author or SME. Assigning paragraph and word counts is easy when you have the approved outline with key points and subpoints. 

A standard page of text with 12-point Times New Roman type contains about 400 words. If there are tables or figures, the word count is less. A paragraph written in clear, concise English usually includes two to six sentences, with each sentence having about 10 to 15 words. So, if you take the average of these lengths, you get about eight, 50-word paragraphs containing about four sentences each on a page. Now you can allocate these counts to each point and subpoint, making the writers’ — and your own — tasks straightforward.

Writer’s block is a state of mind. By applying the simple approach I just described, you can make writing a logical process. Everything you write will be clearer, more concise and on message.