Writing advice: what to do when you’re stuck

ideas that pop with passion icon[Updated] Anyone can be a writer, it’s true. But sometimes—whether you’re writing for the web, crafting an article, a direct marketing piece or a book—you’re going to get stuck and it can seem as if no amount of rewriting is going to fix your copy.

Don’t wait for that sinking feeling to set in.

Here’s the first thing you must do.

Keep writing.

Don’t give in to that feeling that says you need to walk away.

Giving in is easy. It’s what many people do.

There are cases where you need to shift gears for a bit (and I’ll come back to that). But unless you keep working at your craft and your ideas, you’re going to lose any momentum you started with.

There’s an even bigger danger.

Unless you’re in the deadlines business like I am, there is also a good chance that if you put that writing project away, you might not come back to it. Ever.

Stop with the Point-A-to-Point-B thinking. Be more abstract.

Ideas and the business of writing them down is not a linear practice. In fact, it’s rare to be struck by a fully formed thought that’s ready to share. That’s just the low-hanging fruit, my friends. The rest takes time to ripen. And often it’s going to take you in directions that may surprise you as much as your reader.

Here are a few methods I use when I get stuck. You can use any of these, too.

The tangential method

Find a good quote about the subject you are writing about. Don’t just slap that quote into your copy.

The writer’s first devotion is curiosity and you feed it by asking questions.

Who is the speaker behind the quote? Are there any articles posted online about this person? Book reviews?

How might what they have to say about one thing relate to another thing in an entirely unexpected way?

A few minutes of satisfied curiosity can provide you with an entirely new angle on what you’re writing about.

Here’s a secret: it’s one of my most reliable ways of coming up with new topics for my newsletter.

The switching gears method

I said earlier that you have to keep on writing when you’re stuck. But that doesn’t mean you have to keep bashing your head against the wall and wishing for a different result. Some ideas need to simmer. In the meantime, write something else.

Creativity is a weird visitor (click to tweet). It often walks into your house, puts its feet up on the sofa, grabs pen and paper and tells you it’s working on something. Let it do its job. Just don’t let it switch on the TV.

Switching gears means that you might not be working on the thing you started on in the first place, but you’re still producing.

Practice and discipline. These are your best teachers.

The backstory method

This one applies to fiction writing. Having trouble making a character believable? Invent a backstory and write it down. Need help asking the right questions? Go to one of those free online dating sites and look at the questions they ask of people when creating a dating profile. Fill it in. The answers you’re being asked are meant to help other people decide if you’re likeable and compatible. This is a good resource if you’re stumped.

With a fact-filled backstory (okay, made up facts, but I’m sure you get where I’m going with this), you have new ways to approach your subject and write convincingly. After all, you totally know this guy now.

The undoing method

Some ideas are just not ready for primetime. Some are just crappy ideas. A good way to test yours is to turn them inside out. Play devil’s advocate. Write a short piece arguing the opposing point of view.

One of my business lines is speechwriting. I sometimes use this method when I’m finding the copy isn’t as persuasive as I need it to be.

Undo your arguments.

You’ll quickly reveal the cut line that separates the facts you know are true from the rest of the points that you simply feel are true.

Want to be a better speechwriter and public speaker? Think like a spy.

You’re wondering about that spycraft hook, aren’t you? I’ll get to that. It’ll all make sense once I’ve shared with you a bit of context.

Ottawa speechwriter bubblesSpeechwriting is where I first cut my teeth in this trade. From the range of writing services I offer today, it remains among my most demanding work. I say this because a successful speech hinges, in a sense, on thousands of tiny moving parts—each having to function flawlessly every time. It’s not enough to research your subject exhaustively and to spend large chunks of time drafting your text. Nor is it enough to take the time to refine every key phrase so each one resonates with authenticity for your speaker.

You can do everything properly on the writing side of things and still completely bomb out there. Why is that? [Read more…]

Three things to know about how people read today

iconmonstr-glasses-4-icon-256Audiences today have high expectations about what they choose to read. And that’s especially true online.

As more and more marketing shifts to digital formats, readers’ tastes are changing.

Here are three important trends that can help you be a better writer, to stay connected with your audience and to have them coming back for more.

Be reader friendly: use narrower columns

Susan Weinschenk illustrates in her report on reader behaviour that while research shows people can read faster when you use wide columns (more than 100 characters per line), people respond more favourably to narrower columns (betwen 45 and 100 characters per line).

It’s no accident that The Economist and The Guardian–two publishers who have been highly successful at switching to online content–continue to opt for this narrower column style for their online version (particularly for tablets). People come back more often to what they enjoy best.

Bullets go bad quickly

If you have to use bullets at all, use them sparingly: never more than in a group of five. They’re designed to draw the eye to something very selective. Use them too often and it will look like work to your readers.

People read more when it’s enjoyable. They bolt when it starts to feel like a task.

Rethink the fold
When it comes to posting things for others to see–and even though much of that today increasingly is digital–we’re still prone to think in newspaper terms. Thus the expression: put your most important content above the fold. It’s not wrong, but don’t be too rigid about what it means.
Digital content doesn’t have a fold quite the way that a newspaper does. It cuts in different places depending on screen size, particularly on mobile devices–and that’s where traffic is really growing. That’s why scrolling and gesture-based scanning have come to be integral to the reading experience online. Research heatmap activities on your site. Look where people click more often. The results can be surprising.

What’s the best time to send email?

According to Dan Zarrella, most weekday email gets read first thing in the morning.

His research indicates that email messages with the highest click-through rate are sent between 6:00AM and 7:00AM EST.

Other valuable insights:

Limit your subject lines to no more than 50 characters;

Wednesday distribution typically offers the highest weekday clickthroughs, averaging about five percent. Weekends are better at around nine percent; and

Cap your email frequency to no more than four per month.

Cool fact about the @ symbol and where ideas come from

atsymbolTraditionally used as a symbol in commerce to denote unit pricing, email inventor Ray Tomlinson adopted the @ sign as a simpler way to distinguish between user and host.

Soon after, Internet pioneer Jon Postel saw the genius in this, remarking: “Now that’s a nice hack!” And the idea caught on.

More often than not, good ideas are borrowed ones: made better by how you apply them.