Have you ever got yourself tied up in knots while working on an important piece of writing?
You spend ages staring at the screen, writing, deleting and rewriting, over and over again. The harder you try, the more you work, the more stuck and confused you feel.
In my experience, this tends to happen when there’s something big at stake – when you’re writing an important proposal, or a book, or a sales page for your business, or an article or presentation designed to raise your professional profile.
For our purposes today, I’m not talking about writing fiction or drama or poetry – those are specialist areas that often require other solutions. I’m talking about non-fiction writing, to do with education, or business, or personal development, or leadership, or creativity or something else to do with your work.
In my own experience, and my experience of helping coaching clients with their writing, at least 8 times out of 10 there is a simple reason for the problem:
You’re trying to work out HOW to say something before you’ve worked out WHAT you want to say.
This is why you can’t get that sentence or that paragraph right. You say it one way, but that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Or it leaves out something important. Or it doesn’t make sense unless the reader already understands something else.
So you delete the sentence and say it another way, but that doesn’t hit the mark either. It has all the same problems in a slightly different configuration.
If you find yourself in this situation, I have a solution that is so simple and easy that you might struggle to believe it would solve such a complicated and difficult problem.
I’ve used this myself, countless times. And with many coaching clients, when they’re stuck writing their book or their proposal or their website copy or whatever they’re working on. And it nearly always does the trick. So here it is.
You divide your writing into two stages.
Stage 1: WHAT do you want to say?
Stage 1 is where you write down WHAT you are trying to say, in the simplest, most basic language you can think of.
Your aim at this stage is to create an outline of the flow of your argument – an ordered list of the key points you want to make and the key examples you want to use to back them up.
And when I say ‘use basic language’, I mean basic! I’m talking caveman language, Tarzan language, 3-year-old language.
You don’t need sentences or paragraphs. Just a few words or key phrases. It helps to number your points, so you can see the sequence clearly. You can even add drawings or diagrams if that makes it easier to grasp.
If you’re more visually-minded, you might want to draw your outline like a flow chart with arrows connecting the points, and maybe even add some little pictures. Or you might want to use Post-It notes with a note for each point. The nice thing about doing this is that you can physically move the Post-Its around to re-order them. (Or screw them up and throw them in the bin!)
For example, if I were writing an article about how to get over stage nerves, the beginning of the outline might look something like this.
1. Public speaking is scary.
2. Because it’s scary, most people avoid it – top 10 fears etc.
3. So if you can overcome your fear, you become special.
4. Define special – an expert, an authority, charismatic person etc.
5. Being special can really help your career – list career benefits.
6. First step in overcoming fear = Realise it’s normal.
OK that’s enough to give you the idea of an outline. It’s not elegant, but it’s actually more polished than I would normally write, otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense to you.
Once you’ve done the outline, you’ve finished working on the piece for today. You can pour yourself a cup of tea. And relax!
When you come back to it the next day, you’re ready for Stage 2.
Stage 2: HOW do you want to say it?
So what do you find when you arrive at your desk the next day?
A beautifully clear outline, telling you what to write! It’s like the story of The Elves and the Shoemaker, where the shoemaker cuts out the pieces of leather the day before and the elves sew the pieces into beautiful shoes during the night.
At this point, you know WHAT you’re going to say, so all you need to do is work out HOW to say it clearly and engagingly. Which is easy! All the intellectual heavy lifting has been done for you. It’s like colouring in or joining the dots in a puzzle book.
Why does this work?
Why is it so much easier this way? Because you are only doing one thing at a time, so you can give that thing your full attention.
At Stage 1, you’re putting together the building blocks of your argument. It doesn’t need to be pretty, but as long as you build a strong foundation, it will bear the weight of the blocks you put on top.
If you realise you’ve missed a step, or that there’s a big hole in the logic of your argument, it’s not a huge problem to fix. You don’t have to go back and rewrite pages of text. You just need to add a new point to your outline, or delete a point and replace it.
At Stage 2, you can focus all your attention on finding the right words to express the ideas laid out in the outline. You can take time and pleasure in finding just the right word, or phrase, or analogy to get your point across.
Sometimes you get started on stage two and get stuck again. This usually means you’ve identified a hole in the logic of your argument. If that happens, go back and fix the outline before you continue writing the text. Once your outline is clear, the words will start to flow again.
One of the big benefits of writing outlines is that you can cover a lot of ground quickly. So if you’re writing a book, you can spend a morning writing outlines for lots of different chapters. That sets you up nicely for a week or two of writing up the outlines, and by the time you’ve run out of outlines you’ve made great progress on your book.
The same applies to a series of articles, or the different pages of your website, or (cough) a series of blog posts or podcasts.
And no, I’m not suggesting you write like this all the time. Sometimes you start a new piece and the words flow easily and you’re in the zone. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it! But if you get stuck on a piece of writing, then separating out the WHAT and the HOW can help you get unstuck fast.
You can hear an audio version of this article in this episode of the 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 2’17”.