Conquer your writers’ block

The title of this article should have been “Conquer your writers’ blog block”, but apparently WordPress does not allow this!
I only started writing in May 2011, but in less than a year’s time, I fell in love with it! Like most things, the first steps are the hardest, however read my top tips that will start you writing!

1. Develop your writing skills outside of your work environment

You might actually want to improve your writing skills as it is an essential part of your job. However to succeed, your work environment might not be the best environment to do so:

a. Work consists of deadlines and handing work over to superiors. Hence, this time pressure limits your opportunities to develop yourself.
b. The topics you have to write on might not be in your expert area and hence not be appropriate to develop confidence in your writing skill.
c. Due to re-writing of superiors, your article might not end up as your article anymore. When writing your article outside of your work, you have more control on the final product and it will provide you with more pleasure to see the final version of something you created yourself than a paper your boss has re-written. It is rather a pity that many supervisors use the re-writing of papers on non-content based matters, as a method to show their authority.

2. Write on a topic you are passionate about

When you are enthusiastic on a certain topic, you also feel comfortable writing on it and you are eager to share your enthusiasm with others. It does not matter if your passion is on pottery, chess or pigeons which might not interest a wide audience: better write a good specific article for an audience that is interested than writing a general article which isn’t published after all or nobody remembers after reading. When you are really interested in something, you won’t be struggling to pass requirement number 3…

3. Read lots of articles on the topic

As it is an area of your interest, you may already have read dozens of related publications. If you haven’t, read a number of articles on the topic that will expand your knowledge base and provide your audience with useful references at the end of your article. Skim through these articles before you decide to spend lots of time reading them properly: you will soon find out that 25% of them are exactly what you are looking for, 50% are handy for future reference, and 25% turn out to be unsuitable for your particular interest. Hence, select a wide range of articles to increase the number of useful ones. Also read some previous editions of the magazine you are writing for so you get to know your audience and their needs.

4. Write with pen and paper first before starting up your computer

A computer is a fantastic tool as it enables you to gather information quickly, share your thoughts with a wide audience, and remove any issues on handwriting readability. Unfortunately, it is not an ideal tool to transfer your thoughts to the screen: although Sex and the City might suggest that writing a column is simply making the effort to sit in front of the screen, this does not work in practice. The main advantage of pen and paper is that you can arrange your ideas more easily: you can use bullets (next points), mindmaps, or re-write parts of your text. Use pens with different colours so you can easily make corrections . You will be surprised that once you have drafted your main ideas on paper, how easy it becomes to expand on them.

5. Start with bullets

Bullets are a great way to empty your brain before starting the writing process. The great thing of bullets is that it provides your article with bones from which you can create your sentences. Once you have a sufficient number of bullets, you expand, explain or link the bullets with sentences. Thereafter, sort your sentences into logical sections and create section headers.

6. Write a skeleton first and send it to the editor, before writing the entire article

As you just started writing, you need to build skills and confidence. Therefore, send the editor an outline of your article first and ask how likely it is that a final version will be published. When the editor is hesitant or unclear, it is probably better to look for another platform.

Lots of magazines unfortunately consist of old boys networks in which only a limited number of insiders are able to publish: knowing people makes a large difference, but also other criteria like professional degrees or a job title can act as a threshold. You will be surprised (and shocked!) to find out how many people are given article space purely because they are  partner, or CEO independent of their writing skills! Hence, the last thing you need, is spend to lots of time writing an article that isn’t published at all, just because you don’t “qualify” in the first place!

To avoid disappointment look for an audience that is eager for you to share your experiences with them: study societies are an ideal starting point as they are always looking for professionals to share their work experience with students. The article does not have to be technical but can even entail “the average day of an accountant”, or “5 necessary habits to become a successful lawyer”. Writing for an excited audience, will provide you with pleasure (as the article will be published!), skills (as you go through the process of article writing), network (more people will know you), and confidence (so you want to write another article and improve!), so don’t be snobby at first but grab these kinds of opportunities.

7. Re-write your article several times

My main mistake when I started writing, was that I was too happy with the final result too soon. Article writing (unfortunately?) is not a linear process like driving from A to B that can be done in a very clinical way. Not only will you find out that your mood and energy level highly influence your productivity. Also you will find out that things can be stated more clearly and shortly or useful examples can be added when you review your text multiple times. One (extreme?!) example: my most recent article started with version 1 and ended with version 14!

Hence, compare writing with playing golf: you first start with a club giving you far reach in the right direction (the bullets), then you select a smaller club to get on the green (organizing of sections), and then you select a club with even more precision to put the ball (reviewing). Like in golf, the best players are usually the ones that make the difference in the final part of the game as it involves great precision and concentration.  So don’t be satisfied too early but remain concentrated until you putted the ball!

About Servaas Houben

I am a Dutch actuary and worked in the Netherlands for the first 4 years of my career. Thereafter, I worked for 2 years in Dublin and 4 years in London. I am now heading the actuarial department of ENNIA in Curacao.
This entry was posted in "Soft skills" or whatever you want to call them!, English and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Conquer your writers’ block

  1. Zawarmas says:

    Makes me want to write too!

  2. Ashley says:

    Thanks for your effort for composing “Conquer your writers’
    block | ActuaryAbroad”. Imay surely end up being returning for more reading through and writing comments soon enough.
    With thanks, Polly

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