Why It’s Not About Your Writing. It’s About Ideation.

Young pretty young woman thinks of ideas concentrated above stands thoughtful and keeps hand on face stands in thoughtful pose wears round glasses yellow sweater isolated over purple background.

If you follow me closely, you may know that I’m working on a book about how to write a business book (for now, I’m calling it Unwritten: [a super clever, yet to be decided, subtitle]). In the book, I have a chapter on overcoming the obstacles to writing. 

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the obstacles to writing? Go ahead, think about it for a second… 

I’ll bet it’s writer’s block.

Writer’s block is kind of the poster child for writing obstacles, but I’m in the camp that says writer’s block doesn’t exist. So, what IS this feeling people describe when they say they have writer’s block?

We talk about it as some kind of paralyzing feeling that stops the words from coming to our brains or stops us from moving the words from our brains and onto the page. It could be a fear or a lack of motivation. Most of us haven’t thought much more deeply than that. We need to dig deeper, though, because if you’re having trouble with your writing, I bet it’s not about your writing at all. It’s about ideation.

Writer’s Block is Not a Thing.

“I don’t know what to write.” This is what people say when they feel this paralysis, fear, or lack of motivation. Then, usually, after about 5 minutes of staring at the smug blinking cursor at the top of a blank page, they get up and fold their laundry.

But what would happen if the next time you had the thought, “I don’t know what to write,” you refused to buy into it? What if you responded—out loud, if you like—”No. I do know what to write?” Would that help you to start writing and not give into the temptation to fold the laundry? Well, maybe you wouldn’t start writing right away. Still, if you suffer from “writer’s block,” the first step is not to buy into the belief.

And, while we’re at it, let’s explore this belief for a moment because I have convinced myself that writer’s block doesn’t exist and I think I can convince you too. Let’s dig a bit deeper.  

Whenever I drill down on my own “writer’s block,” what I find is that the issue is not merely not knowing what to write. Most often, it’s actually fear or imposter syndrome that keeps me from starting to write. That inner voice (Hi there, Maude!) asserts itself and tells me that whatever words come to mind are not the right words and suddenly I’m spiraling into a place of second-guessing every word that comes to mind. But I know there are things I can do to stop this spiral. I can prove Maude wrong.

Or I find that it’s not writer’s block so much as ideator’s block. It’s not about the writing. It’s about the ideas. Perhaps I haven’t done enough research to talk about a topic. Maybe I haven’t formulated my own opinion or connected enough dots to feel confident in my ideas. In most cases, though, I simply haven’t spent enough time thinking about what I think.

It’s this source of “writer’s block,” that I want to explore in the rest of this article.

What’s Ideation and How Can It Help?

Ideation is one of my favorite things to do with clients. That’s why I have a monthly free event where I ideate with people about their LinkedIn posts. I share some prompts, we do some freewriting together, then I show people how to turn that freewriting into a great LinkedIn post. It’s a lot of fun!

I find that the number one thing I can do to prevent myself from feeling like “I don’t know what to write” is to schedule regular ideation sessions. I try to schedule them with others whenever  I can because collaboration is the best way I’ve found to get the ideas flowing when I’m feeling stuck. Isn’t everything better with a friend?

This, by the way, is what works well with all of our clients too. The lynchpin of all our services is the content strategy session. We meet with you, ask you a bunch of questions to get you talking about your content, and take a gazillion notes. That’s the secret to creating amazing content in our client’s voice. The best part is that all you have to do is show up to the meeting. You don’t have to do any prep work ahead of time. 

For the times when I can’t collaborate with others, I ideate with myself. Here, it’s important for ideation to involve the process of writing. Sure, muse time is great and I also look for time to “take my brain for a walk” in the middle of my day, but the most productive ideation time is when I am writing.

Now, you may be thinking, “okay, but we’re here because we can’t write, remember?” Ah ha, but here is where you need to stop believing that you can’t write by proving your brain wrong. And the best way to do that is to start writing. Write anything. Write the one thing you know to be true and build from there.

Here’s what I’ve discovered in the process of believing that I can’t write and writing anyway: Thinking happens during the act of writing. 

I used to believe I needed to have a fully fleshed out outline before I could start writing. The truth is I was ideating in the process of fleshing out my outline, and now I know an outline isn’t always necessary for ideation. If I just start writing, most of the time, the ideas start to flow. So if you’re feeling writer’s block, the best thing you can do is start writing. I know that it sounds like I’m punking you—”the solution to writer’s block is to write”—but I’m not trying to be glib. If you don’t know what to write, write absolutely anything you can think of. Just start. 

A lot of people also get stuck thinking that they need to write from the beginning to the end in that order. I find the introduction or first few lines of anything I write to be the hardest part. So I rarely start at the beginning. Instead, I write a bit about the background or I jot down some talking points that I know I want to include. I build out the piece from there.

There’s also something to be said for freewriting. When I spend 30 minutes freewriting at the end of my week, it’s so much easier for me to come back to that freewriting on Monday to create my LinkedIn posts for the week. Separating the freewriting time from the post formulation always gives me a better result and helps me to avoid that writer’s block feeling.

For the Next Time…

So the next time you experience writer’s block, see what it would feel like to refuse to believe you can’t write. Then dig down deeper on that feeling. What is it telling you? Do you need to do more research? Do you need some more reflecting time? Would a collaboration with a business buddy ol’ pal help?

Beware of any false flags, though. Even if you do need to do more research, you should write whatever you can before you start down any rabbit holes. Even if you do need more reflecting time, there’s productive reflection and there’s procrastination reflection. An easy way to tell the difference is to talk to a good friend. Having someone else as a sounding board for your ideas is a great way to get those juices flowing. 

So take your reflections to the streets and then write down whatever you say (or even better, record your conversation). Then, most importantly, remind yourself that thinking comes through the act of expressing (or trying to express) your thoughts.

Keep in mind often it’s not writer’s block you’re experience at all. Perhaps it’s perfectionism, fear, or imposter syndrome masquerading as writer’s block. Remember here that messy is exactly where you want to be. Editing is a problem for “future you.” Right now, your problem is simply that you don’t have all the words you need. Then go out and find them.
Start finding those words and refuse to believe in writer’s block (like Tinkerbell, it can’t exist if you don’t believe in it).

Image by: wayhomestudio on Freepik