Conquer your fear of the empty screen

By | May 30, 2016

I work freelance, so I often ask clients to write LinkedIn recommendations for me. Recently I asked a client to do this. He agreed. When nothing appeared after six weeks, I gently reminded him. He apologized and then said something that surprised me.

“I have a terrible time with writing,” he said. “I never know how to start.”

Few senior executives would dare admit this, but I suspect my client is far from alone.

There’s no need to fear the empty screen. The key is to have your first sentence, and even better, your first paragraph, already written in your head.

How do you do this?

1 Start early

Never, ever try to write something on the spur of the moment. You must allow time for the writing process. Some of it is conscious and some of it is subconscious. Don’t be in a rush.

2 Study form and structure

Every piece of writing, even the shortest and most informal email, has some kind of structure. If you’re writing something for a first time (a strategic report, for example) study an example to see how it’s structured. What does first, what goes in the middle, and what goes at the end?

For a LinkedIn recommendation, the basic structure is very straightforward. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel; just study some examples and see how they’re structured.

This is one approach, very simple and easy to write in just four sentences:

We hired Stephen to do [assignment description]. His work was [adjective], [adjective] and [adjective]. He is a [adjective], [adjective] and [adjective] technical writer. I would happily recommend Stephen for a similar assignment.

I’m assuming, of course, that the adjectives are complimentary!

3 Do an outline

Now that you know the structure of what you’re writing, you know what comes first, what comes in the middle, and what comes at the end. For a longer and more complex document, do an outline filling in major headings and subheadings. Don’t start writing yet. Focus on a logical flow from start to finish.

4 Write the lead in your head

The “lead” is the first sentence of your piece of writing. In journalism, it’s designed to either grab your attention (that’s feature writing) or state as many important facts as possible (the “W5” of news writing – who, what, when, where, why).

If you’re been thinking about your piece of writing for more than a day or two, you should already have some opening sentences in your head. Don’t write them down yet. Play with them a bit. Let the lead sentence and what comes after take shape in your head. Some of this head work is taking place in the subconscious or unconscious parts of your brain. That’s fine. Trust them to do some of the writing work for you.

Creative writers know how to tap into this conscious/subconscious mind dynamic. That’s how fiction writers can crank out the many pages required to fill a novel once they set their characters and plots in motion. If all the parts of the brain are cooperating correctly, the writer experiences the almost sublime pleasure of writing the novel as though taking dictation from a voice inside the head.

4 Sit down and write

You’re now ready to start writing. You know the structure of your piece of writing. You have the first sentence, the sentence after that, and probably the sentence after that as well. That’s a paragraph.

You can confidently write your first paragraph, save the document, and continue. Don’t fuss with the lead, or the first paragraph. You can always go back later and fine tune them.

5 Keep going

With a bit of luck you now have a flow going. Use the energy and momentum of the flow to complete a fast first draft. When you finish, hit save, and congratulate yourself for completing the first draft. The hardest part is over. Now you can go back and edit, refine, tweak, trim and adjust.

And you have conquered your fear of the empty screen.

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