Why Can’t I Start This %*^@! Document?

Often what we perceive as a block is really just a flaw in our approach to writing. Here are a few common reasons that people find it hard to start a document, and some tips to help you conquer the blank page.

Four Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

It happens to all of us. You have to write a document—a report, a memo, an important email. You open a file, put your hands over the keyboard and… nothing. You’ve got writer’s block. The good news is that this will be a great time to clean your desk.

Often what we perceive as writer’s block is really just a flaw in our approach to writing. Here are a few common reasons that people find it hard to start a document—and some tips to help you conquer the blank page.

1.   You’re afraid it won’t be perfect

Stephen J. Cannell is one of the most successful producers in television history. He’s created dozens of hit shows (The Rockford Files, Wiseguy, The A-Team) and has written hundreds of TV scripts. The secret to his success will surprise you.

Cannell is dyslexic. He can barely read. But as an up-and-coming writer, he saw this as an advantage.

For most of us, writer’s block comes from a fear of putting anything on paper because we’re afraid it won’t be good enough. But Cannell’s learning disability meant he knew that whatever he wrote wouldn’t be good enough—at least not without serious editing. So he never worried. He just wrote.

Accept that your first draft won’t be perfect. Once you know that, you can just start writing—and then start editing it into a second draft, which will be better. 

2.   You haven’t talked it through

If you can’t start typing, start talking. Your document should be written in a conversational tone anyway, so speaking about it is a good place to start.

Invite a coworker into your office to listen, and start explaining what you want to write. Use this opening to get the words flowing: “This document needs to….”

Using casual language, explain what you want to communicate with the document. As you hear yourself, you’ll probably grab your keyboard several times and say, “Hey, that’s good. I should use that.”

You’ll need your coworker to stay and listen for at least a few minutes so you can build your rhythm. This is why, no matter what the doctors say, it’s a good idea to keep a huge jar of candy on your desk.

3.   You’re staring at a blank page

Staring at a blank page can set off writer’s block because it triggers those thoughts that worry us when we start writing: It won’t be good enough. I haven’t written a single word. I have no idea how to start.

When you fire up a new document, immediately start typing something, anything, about the subject—who the document’s readers will be, when it’s due, a working title, a couple of ideas for sections, anything you can think of.

You’re actually tricking the part of your mind that’s afraid to start. Instead of staring at a blank page, now you see a screen full of disorganized content. You’ll want to edit, cut, rephrase, and rearrange. You’ll say, “I should move this up… slide that to the left… bold the title… turn these three points into a list.” Suddenly, you’re writing! And, trust me, now the ideas will start flowing.

Movie critic Roger Ebert says, “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.” That’s his clever way of saying that the words, the ideas, and your enthusiasm for what you’re writing—they all start coming to you only after you’ve started writing.

(And if you think that’s profound, you should read Ebert’s review of Die Hard with a Vengeance.)

4.    You’re in front of your computer

Ever notice that sometimes your best ideas come to you when you’re in the shower, or lying in bed, or driving?

When you don’t have many distractions, your creative ideas can come to the surface. So sometimes the best way to start writing is to figure out what your document needs to communicate, then walk away from your computer and give your mind a break to let your creativity do its job.

Go for a walk. Talk to a coworker in the break room. And hey, if you have a shower in the office, use it!

This is a good reason to build in more time to write your work-related documents. If you’re not facing a short deadline, you can walk away from the writing, stop thinking about it consciously, and give the creative centers of your brain a chance to work their magic.

Often you’ll leave your desk, start doing something else for just a few minutes and… inspiration will strike. When this happens, drop everything and run back to your desk. Unless you were taking a shower.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of MoneySavvyTeen.com, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.