If your position requires you to do any formal writing – and nearly every position does – you’ve felt the terror of the blank page.
You’re not alone.
Many people have an unnatural dread of writing. Reasons vary, but the result is the same: freezing up when faced with an empty piece of paper or screen. Professional writers have developed procedures and techniques to help them write with efficiency.
You can adapt this step-by-step solution for all your workaday writing assignments. Though this isn’t the only formula for producing readable copy, it can take the pain out of the process and help you present your ideas with greater confidence.
1. Define the purpose of your assignment. What do you have to write, and what do you want to accomplish? Are you writing a letter to persuade people to contribute to a cause? Giving a speech on a sensitive topic? Devising a new brochure? Writing an article for your company’s internal magazine? Be clear about the reason for your communication.
2. Know your audience. To whom are you writing: a group of sophisticated investors? Seasoned managers and directors? The local garden club? High school students? Try to understand the attitude of the people you want to reach.
3. Collect your research material. Immerse yourself in your topic as much as time permits. This probably will involve reading a variety of material, but don’t limit yourself to the printed word. Talk to people. See whether you can find out what your audience needs and wants to know from your communication.
4. Take a break. Give yourself time to digest what you learned. The brain has a marvelous capacity for sorting and ordering the material you feed it. At this stage, some experts suggest doing an unrelated activity: cooking, gardening, going for a walk. The activity doesn’t matter as long as you’re not consciously working on the assignment.
5. Jot down ideas. Ideas will come to you in the most unlikely places. Be prepared. Carry a pad and pen or microcassette recorder to preserve your thoughts effortlessly. Don’t censor yourself, regardless of how inappropriate or weird an idea might seem. Give yourself free rein to come up with any kind of connection, linkage or discovery.
6. Organize and outline. Sort your material into some kind of structure. What are the important points you must include? What research will you need to insert? What is the central idea you want to get across? Some writers think in terms of a story, with a beginning, middle and end. The variations are endless, but you’ll need to shape your material into some kind of intelligent design that serves the intent of your communication.
7. Write a draft. Some pros prefer doing a draft in one sitting, simply moving forward until they reach the end. Others like to range over the draft, working here and there. You’ll have to determine for yourself the method that works best for you. Working out a sound structure beforehand may give you the best of both worlds: It provides a solid framework, with room to improvise as you write.
8. Revise. When you finish your first draft, set it aside. Depending on your schedule, you may be unable to leave it for very long. Even a day’s break will let you look at it with a fresh set of eyes. Don’t be discouraged if you see places to rewrite. Few writers express themselves perfectly the first time.
9. Circulate your draft to a small group of readers. Writers often get too close to their material to see where they’ve gone astray. An outside critique can be invaluable in catching mistakes. I suggest sharing your work with no more than four or five associates. Even if you work alone, you still can build a community of close readers. Offering to reciprocate can buy you a lot of goodwill, too.
10. Work toward a final draft. You may not agree with all the comments you get. That’s fine. You want your ideas clearly expressed and your message understood, not necessarily unanimously agreed on. If you hear the same critical comment about a specific passage from more than one reader, pay particular attention to it. After you get everyone’s feedback, do your next draft. How many drafts until a final draft? It’s impossible to say. You won’t be able to revise indefinitely, so let clarity and time constraints be reasonable guides.
Try this approach the next time you have a big writing assignment. Who knows? Maybe the blank page won’t look frightening after all.