I’ve been quite fortunate in my writing career in that I’ve never had writer’s block on a paying assignment. Usually, the worst problem I’ve had while collecting a paycheck has been getting stuck on a sentence, and then I get back to it in an hour or so. Writing for myself (say, a novel or a work of nonfiction) is another matter.
When in doubt, ask
On those rare occasions where I needed help getting started, such as when I’m doing a blog or journalism, I suck it up, go back to my customer or manager, and ask, “What do you want me to do with this?” It’s not fun to admit I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m paid to write, and if I can’t come up with anything useful, I at least need a starting point.
Do some reading
I like the fact that reading is part of what I get paid to do, whether it’s a book or a website. Reading is one of my primary avocations when I’m not working anyway, so getting paid is sort of a bonus. Anyhow, if I’m scouting around for ideas about what to say about my topic, the easiest thing to do is pick up a book or go to a website and start reading about it.
What usually happens as I read is that I get a general notion about what’s happening, and then I start asking questions: Why does the process work that way? What happens if X occurs? In short, my writing is formed by what interests me about the topic. I ask my questions, and then I go digging around to see what the answers are. That becomes my “angle” if I’m writing a story.
What do you really think?
Sometimes I have very strong opinions about a topic. That provides the energy to get the ball rolling. However, if I realize I have a bias, I force myself to work extra hard at writing factually and also to include a factual, honest interpretation of any opposing viewpoints. The fact that I subtly stack the deck on one side or the other is an issue for my editor–sometimes they let it slide, sometimes they ask, “Have you considered X?” or “You forgot to include Y.” Then I go back and add the appropriate level of detail.
Get a second opinion
I might not give a hill of beans about a topic. However, I might know someone who does, and I can ask them. “Why is this interesting?” “Why does this matter?” Or even, “What do you think about this?” Once I have an angle, even if it’s someone else’s angle, I can get rolling. Again, I might not care one way or the other, but it’s easier to frame a story with a viewpoint behind it than to share a bland recitation of the facts.
Think about the structure of what’s going on
Sometimes the very nature of a topic–what’s happening, how it happens, what it’s describing–will determine the type of story or document I need to write. Am I writing about a process? Start with the beginning and move toward the end. Am I describing an object or place? Describe the parts, from largest to smallest (or smallest to largest) or from most to least important, or vice versa. Again, the nature of the thing to be discussed often shapes how I think about it and thus how I write about it.
Read the news
There are times when I’m at a loss for what to write about. That happens on this blog occasionally, though you probably didn’t know it because I’ve managed to hold forth so many opinions and bits of advice over the years. Still, there are days when inspiration doesn’t strike. In cases like that, I need to look outside myself and out into the world beyond. Depressing as the news has been lately, if I’m at a loss for things to write about, I can usually sift through the events of the day and find a technical writing angle to it.
Don’t be afraid to play with ideas
I love writing first drafts. It’s like being the first person to make a path through an uncharted wilderness or shaping a lump of clay into a form less messy. The first draft–my first impression–might be completely wrong, but that’s okay, I’ll try again until the content makes sense to me. It might require writing down a bunch of different impressions or approaches until I find one that makes sense. Once the content is in an order that makes sense to me, the rest is usually just tweaking.