From the outside, writing for a living can look like an easy gig. Just think of it: sitting at a desk in a calm and quiet space, a cup of coffee or tea nearby, and a cat on the lap, channeling your inner muse as the words flow from the pen to page...
Sure, sometimes it does feel that easy. It's an incredible feeling.
It's also a rare feeling.
For many of us who are freelance writers, we know it's usually nothing like that scene at all.
Yes, working with words for a living can be a great experience, but it is often an ongoing battle with motivation, distractions, self-doubt, housecleaning, and time management, just to name a few challenges. Each of these alone could easily be a topic for a separate blog post.
However, today we are going to focus on the idea of inspiration, or perhaps more accurately, we are going to look at how to find it.
Imagine yourself sitting in front of the computer, a new word processing document on the screen, the cursor blinking on and off.
The client told you all about their audience, the SEO keywords, the message they want to convey, and the results they want.
Yet, your mind is blank. You know you have to write it, and a deadline is looming.
“How do I start? What do I even write about?”
This happens more often than you might think.
Overcoming writer’s block
While everyone works in different ways, here are some tried and tested ideas that help me and my wife, also a freelance writer, get started and get it done on time.
Research the topic
In freelance writing, we are often asked to write about new topics and areas, and it can be difficult to know where to start. In this situation, the Internet is your best friend.
A simple Google search for “What is ______?” is a great place to start and can lead you down the rabbit hole of interesting articles and facts. Other people have surely written about the same thing before, and it's not cheating to read what they have had to say.
Remember the keywords from the client? Punch those in, and see what you find.
There are also some useful, free tools out there that will help you refine your research:
The website AnswerThePublic uses the autocomplete data of major search engines to find the most searched for questions and phrases for your keywords. The data is displayed in a visual format or as a graph, allowing users to quickly see what potential customers are actually looking for.
For SEO help, SEMRush offers great tools for diving deep into search engine optimization. One easy way to use SEMRush is to search for Related Keywords and their statistics. Another is to use the Topic Research function in the Content Marketing menu to discover how other websites are covering the same topic.
And, of course, don't forget the workhorse Wikipedia, a good place to get a general overview of a topic. Its embedded links allow you to broaden your understanding and quickly understand the overall concept.
All of this and more can help you see the big picture, the key points, and create the text that best meets the client's needs.
Talk about it with someone
One of the common challenges of freelancing is working on your own. You're stuck there by yourself, inside your own head. You know there's a better way to do it, there's a better answer, but you just can't see it.
Reach out to someone you trust: a friend, a fellow freelancer, or someone you know in that field or industry. Oftentimes, in the act of explaining the situation and the problem, you actually find your own answer. Or, the person doing the listening can ask questions or make suggestions that you couldn't see. A fresh perspective on what feels like a stale problem can be invaluable.
In fact, for this blog post, I wasn't quite sure what would be the focus. It seemed like such a broad topic, and the way forward wasn't clear. I had a couple of long conversations with a fellow writer (a.k.a., my wife) that really helped me drill down on what I thought was important and create an outline to work with.
Do something else
“Just pick up a broom, and sweep the floor.”
These words of wisdom from my uncle, a carpenter, have helped us in these kinds of situations for years. This is what he does when he doesn't know what to do next in the middle of a project or is frustrated by something he can't fix. The woodshop floor always needs to be swept, and it's a chance for him to engage in a purely physical activity that leaves his mind free to think or not think about the problem.
For me, I like to vacuum the house or go for a walk without my smartphone.
My wife likes to cook or make nukazuke pickles, a traditional type of Japanese pickles that ferment in a ceramic crock full of rice bran mixed with salt, kombu seaweed, and water.
The answer is usually there in your head. You just have to be quiet enough to be able to hear it.
Be ready to capture it when it strikes
You never know when or from where the answer will come, and when it does, don't just rely on your memory. There's nothing worse than discovering the answer to your problem, then sitting down in front of the computer later and realizing you forgot it!
You should always have your preferred method at hand to write down or record the information.
My wife is old school and always keeps a small notebook and pen nearby. She has boxes and boxes of full notebooks, full of ideas and potential.
I'm a bit more high-tech and like to use the voice memo app on my smartphone, especially when walking. It allows me to keep moving while verbalizing what I've been thinking about and possible directions to take my writing.
Just start writing
Yet, in the end, sometimes none of the above suggestions work, and the deadline is still staring you in the face.
In this situation, the best thing is to just start writing. As painful as it might seem, as bad as you think the writing might be, you have to start putting words on the page.
Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or clarity. Don't go back and waste time wordsmithing at the sentence level. Just start putting your ideas on the page.
Feel free to start again or change direction, but don't delete what you've already written as it could be useful later.
Recently, I had to write a short piece about teaching with technology for an educational website. I really struggled with getting started and what I wanted to express. After a reality check conversation with a fellow teacher and still facing a deadline, I just started writing.
Seven restarts later, with a hot mess of words, sentences, and paragraphs on the page, I could finally see what was important and how I wanted to say it. While perhaps not my best writing, in the end, I got it done, and the client was happy.
What do you think?
Do you have any good (or bad) stories about writer's block or tips on how to overcome it? If so, please feel free to share in the comments below.
Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.