“I’m not a writer. I don’t want to become a writer. I just want to finish this document. Could you wordsmith it for me?” I hear this, or something like it, all the time at work. If someone really has to put some words down, they follow up with, “I can’t write. I have writer’s block.”

Now this statement appears paradoxical to me: if you’re not a writer, you can’t have writer’s block. That’s like having tennis elbow when you’ve never picked up a racket or getting swimmer’s itch without ever getting wet. Writer’s block is one of those great mysteries that artistic types and scholars never get tired of talking about, reading about and ironically, even writing about. Its exact causes are unknown but its result is clear: a blank screen.

There are a lot of theories about what causes the phenomenon but most common cause I see is simple, sufferers’ don’t know what they’re writing. When I ask, the blocked person usually describes the page-length or the general mode of the project (proposal, directive, training document). Maybe they mention the topic: “I’m writing about customer service,” but other than the fact the words are needed by someone, the writer doesn’t have a personal investment in the document as an outcome unto itself.

The next time you find yourself feeling blocked, put aside all the project specs just for a few moments and free-write (yes, write) for ten minutes using one or more of the following prompts:

• I think this topic is important/interesting because______. People who don’t agree with me on this don’t understand______.
• Everyone writing about this subject is just blowing hot air. The only things that people really need to know in the real-world are_______.
• I am totally confused by______ and ________. In order to make sense of this I would need to know ______ and _____.
• It seems like everyone is talking about ______ as though it’s_____ but in my experience, it’s __________.

Just scribble in your own language. Don’t worry about your spelling, grammar or even facts. No one ever has to see this. It’s just a booster to get you started. Once you’ve got some ideas and opinions banging around in your head, write for five more minutes using this prompt:

The length, due date and style aren’t what it’s about. To write this paper, all I have to do is (show/explain/prove/define/disprove) _________ by doing this: _________.

Print that last piece out and tack it up somewhere you can see it. When you feel lost or frustrated, ask yourself: “Is what’s happening now helping me do this?”

People splash around in the ocean without being Olympic swimmers. People manage to swing a racket at a fuzzy ball on Saturday afternoons and you’ll manage to get through this writing task–even if you’re not a writer.


Vincent Kovar

Writers’ Exchange Marketing and Technical Writer