To break out of writer’s block, relax your mind and put something on the screen, even if it’s just a few words.

When you look at the swarm of email that fills your inbox every day, you wouldn’t think that anyone had trouble with writer’s block, but they do. When they need to write a substantive message that is important, they often sit for hours in front of a blank screen, sweaty and anxious.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • List topics that you want to discuss – On the screen or on a piece of paper, list the topics that you are thinking about, even those that might seem marginally important. This mind-mapping exercise is important, because the brain needs to see the thoughts that are in your head. You will notice what topics are missing, you can eliminate unimportant topics, you can see how some topics are related to others, and you can arrange your list in the order that you want to discuss the subjects.

When people sit for a long period of time in front of a blank screen thinking about what they want to say, they are trying to write it in their head, which won’t work. There is never any order to thoughts bouncing around like molecules in your head. Once the brain can see the topics, you need to establish an order.

  • Let yourself write garbage – Lower your standards the first time you sit down to write, because that isn’t really your first draft. You will make numerous changes to that initial version before you show it to anyone, so just relax and write. Good writing is rewriting; it never happens the first time.
  • Start small – Even starting with a few words can be helpful. You will be surprised at how your thoughts unfold and before you realize it, you have four sentences written. That’s because your brain thinks associatively, so when it sees words, it thinks of related concepts that are associated with that. When you start with a few words, those lead to more, and then you are on your way.
  • Write a paragraph, then a sentence – Write longer (a paragraph), just so your thoughts begin to unfold, and then pare it down.
  • Write the easy parts first – If it is taking you hours to write your opening paragraph, think about the sections that you know will be easier for you, and write those. The opening will begin to take shape in your mind as you write the other parts.
  • Tell a friend what you’re trying to say – If you’re stuck, try explaining to a friend what you’re trying to write. But don’t just blurt it out and wait for the other person to give you feedback. Listen to your words; that’s often exactly what you are trying to say in writing. Once we convert thoughts to conversational language, our content often flows more naturally. You might be having difficulty getting started because you are worried about how important this communication is, who is going to read it, and what might happen if the writing isn’t good. Paralysis sets in.
  • Stay focused and be determined — A challenge for many people is having the discipline to keep their butt in the chair long enough to finish a piece of writing. It’s fine to go get another cup of coffee, but don’t get pulled into hallway conversations. Return to the keyboard.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at

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