Four weeks ago, with the publication of my 365th article on this blog, I celebrated one year (in workdays) of writing a blog. Then two weeks ago, I shared with you what systematic content creation strategies I’ve employed to help me produce fresh content regularly over the past 14 years. But as every writer knows: Eventually, there comes the dreaded day when you go blank – when you have no idea what to write about next. As the American writer and director Sidney Sheldon put it: “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”
So when you’re out of the flow and under time pressure, how can you quite assuredly come up with a winning idea for a new article or blog post? Today, let’s discuss some mindset changes and actions that you can adopt to unblock “writer’s block.”
1. Keep calm and carry on.
One of the success strategies of avid creators is to produce outputs without worrying too much about how readers or art consumers respond to a new creation. Remember that Beethoven didn’t become a famed composer because of all of his work but for his eternal symphonies no. 5 and 9. ‘If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor,’ noted the American author Edgar Rice Burroughs in this context.
Interestingly, some articles that I just wrote down to keep the blog going without expecting too much went viral, while other pieces that were dear to my heart didn’t resonate at all. So, do your job and write, and let the readers take care of their response to your new piece. And follow the advice of the American novelist and poet Barbara Kingsolver:
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
— Barbara Kingsolver
2. You’re not pleasing everyone anyway.
The innovation adoption curve explains how people respond differently to a new technology or innovative product, and then adopt it in gradual phases over time following a bell curve shape. The same phenomenon probably holds true for creative creations in general.
When it comes to your writing, we can expect similar responses:
- Probably, there are a few“hardcore fans” who surf the same wavelength as you and love your articles.
- A slightly larger group of people view you and what you do favorably and —at least occasionally— enjoy your writings, too.
- Expect a third group of people (roughly equal in size as the first two groups) to dislike what you do and stand for (including the topics you write about) because they’re cognitively wired diametrically different than you and thus get excited by opposite topics.
- Together, your “friends and foes” make roughly one-third of your potential target audience. But what about the remaining two-thirds of people? They are largely indifferent about you and your writings, but some may start paying attention if you manage to become well-known.
So what? Don’t bother about the indifferent majority and your opposing critics — you cannot please them anyway. When you feel you’re blocked, remember that your few fans are likely to still read your upcoming piece even if you think it’s less glamorous. And while your favorable followers may skip this piece if it doesn’t resonate with them, they’re unlikely to abandon you and might find something more fitting and exciting the next time around.
3.Strive for regularity and not perfection.
Becoming aware of the first two points might give you the courage to continue writing, even if it might mean releasing a piece that you feel is below your desired standards of excellence (such as this present one, as I am facing time constraints at present).
“The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing,” noted the French painter Eugene Delacroix. So, don’t strive for perfection when you write your next blog or article. Instead, resolve to keep your commitment with yourself and other stakeholders involved to produce and publish output in regular intervals.
4. Stop procrastinating. Start with the act of writing.
What if you have to fill an empty slot in a blog or regular column by a particular deadline, and you cannot get an idea for a topic? Take action and begin writing about the first “bad” topic that comes to your mind. You might feel that this topic isn’t ready for release yet, not exciting enough, or somehow flawed in other ways that dissatisfy you. Whatever the case might be, keep on writing to get your mind into your writing routine. Then, one of two things is likely to happen:
- You notice that after a while, your mind warms up to the topic and that it is not as substandard as you’ve initially thought. You may even get a bit excited about the article and feel comfortable publishing it later.
- You spend an hour writing something you still disapprove of, and you feel this work isn’t fit for publication. In that case, move on to heed the advice in the next point below.
“Beginning a novel is always hard. It feels like going nowhere. I always have to write at least 100 pages that go into the trashcan before it finally begins to work. It’s discouraging, but necessary to write those pages. I try to consider them pages -100 to zero of the novel.”
— Barbara Kingsolver
Whatever the case, the action of beginning the writing process activates your subconscious mind, thereby signaling that you need a new topic for your next article. Writing the first line of the new piece is the crucial first step of producing your desired target output, regardless of how the final paper will look in the end. “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good,” noted the American writer William Faulkner. And the German playwright and widely acknowledged genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed the magical effect of shifting from procrastination to action as follows:
“Lose the day loitering, ’twill be the same story
Tomorrow, and the next more dilatory,
For indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute!
What you can do, or think you can, begin it!
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated;
Begin it, and the work will be completed.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
5. Take a break and be open.
Let’s return to the second bullet point in the previous section: Suppose you’ve begun writing on a new piece, and roughly after half an hour, the words still don’t flow easily, and you seem to be off-topic. Then, stop writing and take a break. Do something else, preferably something that you enjoy and that tends to help you get ideas.
For example, go for a run or take to the yoga mat for an hour. Head into town for a coffee break. Call a friend or two and have a chat. Take a long shower. Regardless of what you choose to do in your break, keep an open mind. Expect that an idea of an exciting topic for your upcoming article will come to you during your break while practicing one of your favorite idea-inducing activities.
6. Be ready for illumination and swift action.
All of a sudden, when you least expect it, your subconscious mind is likely to provide you with a beautiful idea for your blog or column. Typically, you know that the idea is right in this moment of illumination, and you feel excited about the new topic. Now it’s essential to act right away.:
- Take a piece of paper and write down your topic idea in the center of an empty page in your notebook (or the backside of a napkin if you’re in a coffee shop or restaurant).
- Map out possible subtopics that you would like to discuss as part of your article.
- Browse through the internet for quick-and-dirty research on any still unfamiliar aspects related to your topic.
- Look for inspiring quotations or images that may give you further ideas on how to approach the topic.
By the end of this rather frantic topic exploration and ideation phase, you should have a good understanding of the overall structure and rough contents of your article. Ideally, you have created a concept map that shows the different sections of your upcoming article. You probably can already see the final piece emerging in front of your mental eye. There is only one thing left for you to do.
6. Write! First create a draft, later edit for the final piece.
After you have mapped out the structure of your new article, take another break to let the topic sink in and relax your mind. Then, get ready to produce the piece in two phases:
- First, create: Write a raw draft of the mapped-out article in one go. (If you’re under time pressure by now, then work at a frantic pace.) Shut up your inner critic and let the words flow onto the paper. Do this until you’ve covered all the points and subtopics that you’ve identified in your map.
- Later, critique: After another break, you let your inner critic off the leash and begin editing your draft article. Fix grammar issues and replace mundane words with more refined ones. Shift some sections around if needed. Cut out the superfluous to arrive at a crisp, concise text. The American-Canadian novelist John Irving commented in this context that, “Half my life is an act of revision.”
- When you’re happy with your edited draft, let another person (ideally a savvy editor) look over your work to spot other errors and fix any remaining bugs.
- Finally, upload your copy to your blog, or share it with the professional editor of the newspaper or magazine that runs your column. After your piece is published, give yourself a pad of your back, and rejoice in the feeling that once again, you’ve managed to come up with a fresh idea for a new article against the odds.
Conclusion: Act and get into flow, and soon the Ideas will flow.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better,” noted the American author Stephen King. Today, I shared my approach to overcoming a temporary drought of ideas for a new topic for my blog or article. You might have already guessed it: The underlying creative principles not only work for finding a new topic for a blog or column but are equally applicable for any situation when you desperately need an idea for your next creative project — whether it’s an idea for your research project, a new song, or a piece of art. So, relax, begin the process, open up and get ready for illumination. Then, gratefully receive the winning idea for your next creation from your subconscious mind, and then get to work and get it done. As the American writer Henry Miller noted: “Writing is its own reward.”
- We teach the underlying principles underlying the process of subconscious creativity and how you can activate and cultivate it in our Genius Journey training courses and creative leadership development programs.
- Contact us if you’d like to learn more about the Genius Journey method or if you need any inspiration or advice for your company’s creativity and innovation challenges in these trying times.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2021