We’ve all faced this obstacle at some point in our lives. From writing that report in middle school about a completely uninteresting topic, to writing an email to a coworker about sales figures, to writing a resume that’s overly inflated. We often struggle to find the right combination of words that both make us look good and that convey our intent to the reader. And if you are more of a professional writer, then this is something you encounter every single day of your life with all of your work.
As of late my publishing schedule on Medium has dwindled to its all time low. Where I used to write 6–10 articles per month, I now sit at around 2 articles and am struggling to string together entertaining thoughts. It’s not that ideas aren’t there, because that’s never going to be true for anyone. There is enough happening in the world that every single person could write a unique piece without overlap at any point in time.
My biggest problem is that my system when it comes to writing isn’t 100%. I take days off, I delete drafts, I talk myself out of writing for the day because “reasons”. Maybe I’m too tired, or maybe I deserve to take a day off to rest. You get the idea. That means that I need a new system because as the Greek poet Archilechus states, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”.
Here’s how I’m training.
I have a page on my digital notebook with the title ‘Brainstorm’. It’s essentially a giant list of potential topics that I can write about. Any topic. Whether it is something that I am personally interested in or even good at is irrelevant.
You might have “The future of phone batteries” as a topic for example. You might not know the first thing about phone batteries, but that’s alright. Write it down and let it mature a bit. These are just seeds really. And like any seed, they require fertile soil, maintenance and time to develop. You might find yourself one day reading an article on lithium-ion alternatives and thus you’ll be working your way closer to this article.
I personally prefer to brainstorm ideas all at once in one sitting each day. When you make something your dedicated task, at least for the moment, you are not distracted by anything else that you might have going on around you. Because life happens. There is stuff going on at all times. And lithium-ion batteries might not rank high on that list when the kids need to be picked up from school.
But when the most important thing (at least temporarily) is what’s in front of you, then the batteries begin to take on a different meaning. While pen and paper feel like more traditional note taking tools, they are limiting. Use a digital app instead. This way you an reorder ideas in terms of your interests overall. You can also include links to relevant content, add images, leave a voice memo or anything else that moves the needle further into making this article a reality.
But it isn’t that there isn’t anything to write about. It’s just that you might not be aware of these things just yet. Or maybe you heard the terminology being used, but just haven’t had the time to look into it. I write alot about programming and web development on my blog. And there are plenty of brainstormed (see above) topics that I’d like to write about, but I just don’t have the necessary knowledge just yet to do so.
This is one reason why Medium is such a useful platform for both consumers and writers. Because you can be both on the platform simultaneously without conflict. There are countless new articles published every single day on essentially any topic that you can think of.
Think of this reading time as your refueling for your next bout of articles. You will encounter new word patterns, new vocabulary, new concepts and while individually this might seem like it has no real impact on you overall, cumulatively it will be the main contributing factor to whatever it is that you write next.
Make the reading a part of your brainstorming process as well. As you read an article, keep an eye out for areas of interest that maybe aren’t elaborated on so well. You might even find an article so boring that you wonder why you started reading it in the first place. Even that can be helpful as it points you away from certain topics that if you find boring, maybe other’s will to.
And that’s the whole point here. You aren’t reading to copy or clone anybody else’s work. You’re just trying to stimulate your own creativity in order to get the ball rolling.
Read older work
You’d be surprised how poorly some of your older work will age. You might even be in denial as you read through paragraphs written 2–3 years prior and convince yourself that somebody else must have sneaked in to your house and hit publish.
Well, at some point after denial there is acceptance and hope. So skim through your old work and give yourself an honest assessment. Some of the most popular articles on my blog have been based on older articles that were short and unimpressive. They almost felt like rough drafts in a way. And technically, they kind of are. All of our work is a rough draft of whatever it is that we will build next.
For me personally, this is a great opportunity to fill in the gaps that were present in the original version. I can go into more detail and provide much more useful context that I couldn’t otherwise have done years prior. It’s also a good opportunity to correct mistakes. Because we all make mistakes more often than we’d like to admit.
Your own work can be an ongoing supply of ideas and topics for years to come. And the more that you write now, the bigger the pool that you will have later on when you need it.
Writing is your training. It’s your training for the next article, and then the next after that. And just like with physical training, often times it’s a slow and painful process that does not yield results until much later after some recovery period.
Building a consistent schedule and then sticking to that schedule regardless of outside external factors is the only real way to get out of the writers block mentality. Because if you are writing every day, then you don’t have time to be blocked. It might not be your best work and it might not even be fun to write. But the process of doing it is how you get better.
Once you are done hitting publish and you get a minute to ask yourself “Why wasn’t that fun to write?”, then the inevitable answers that follow are what guide you towards writing better content the next time. And in the process you narrow in on what you actually want to write about.
Lack of consistency is my current bad habit to obliterate. And it is the cause of my recent lack of content. Once a day or two pass without even a prompt being written down, undoubtedly that time gets used for something else. That something else, regardless of what it is, begins to slowly cement itself into your daily habits. And once the cement is dry, it’s hard to remember what was underneath it.
Consistency is the only tool that will chisel away at that cement slowly but surely.