Writer's block at work

How to “Face the Blank Page” at Work

September 11, 2019 by Milton Herman

5 min read

Lee Isreal was a successful writer in the 60’s and 70’s. By 1993, her career was in shambles, she began forging letters by deceased actors and writers to pay rent. She sold more than 400 letters before being caught by the FBI.

Moral judgement aside, how was she able to fool so many scholars and literary savants? And why did she write, “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”?

Because her byline wasn’t on the letters. She was removed from criticism.

The fear of criticism, failure and rejection is what prevents us from facing the blank page at work. Every email we send, document we type and report we create has our name attached to it. Everyone knows feedback is a good thing, but few are eager to sign up for it.

Here’s how you can overcome fear and write better at work.

Fact vs. Fiction: Writer’s Block

Many people find themselves unable to begin when they set out to write an email, a document, a presentation or even a lengthy chat message. Some attribute this to, “writer’s block.”

Writing isn’t the only task that requires perseverance. Yet we don’t throw around terms such as Coder’s Clog or Designer’s Deterrence. The idea of writer’s block has been around since the 1940’s. But if you look up how to overcome writer’s block, the internet will tell you: you’re lazy and stop making excuses!

Novelist Philipp Meyer said it best,

Writer’s block is your internal critic being turned up too high when it’s time to write, it must be turned down to zero when it’s time to write or create.

This applies to the workplace as well. Fear is one of the main factors when it comes to the inability to write, along with several other influences.

Fear - The fear of failure impacts many at work. Perhaps your boss has distressing, unfair standards and they impede your work. Fear could mean imposter syndrome where people don’t feel qualified for a position. It could be a fear driven by perfectionism, and not being able to start because you’re already thinking about potential mistakes.

Exhaustion - There’s a long list of things that the tired brain struggles with, one of those being cutting out distractions and staying focused on a task. Studies show our brain cells have a harder time communicating when we’re tired, which leads to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

Time & Preparation - Many consider stress and anxiety the biggest contributors to their writing problems, but time and preparation should not be overlooked. Traditional writing preparation requires gobs of research, even for fiction writers. In a work setting, this could mean talking the situation out with colleagues, reviewing similar items (past emails, reports, etc), and other internal resources.

The main takeaway for overcoming writer’s block is if you sit there and wallow in your perceived failure, you’re unlikely to get a literary epiphany. Take a lap around the building, find a creative outlet or grab some snacks instead. Return to the task when you have the first sentence or note in mind.

DocOps in Action: The DocOps methodology applies a strategy to help you prepare for any form of writing. The creation of a Preparation Document before you begin writing allows authors to gather five necessary components for clear and powerful writing.

Write down a description of the intended audience: Is this content for a manager, a team or the whole company? Thinking about this first will impact everything else.

Write down your intended goal for the reader: Listing the goal of an email before you write it takes seconds but might prevent an entire thread of confusing replies and follow up questions.

Briefly outline your strategy and constraints: Decide how you’ll go about delivering your message and list out any constraints, such as who else needs to approve it, deadlines or maximum length.

Create a set of writing prompts to reinforce the strategy: Creating a set of linear writing prompts provides a head start so you can jump into writing without fear of veering off track.

Gather relevant source material: Gather screenshots or media assets that you’ll need. If nothing else, it’s a good way to make sure you don’t forget the attachment!

Make Writing Skills a Priority

Don’t overlook how important it is to face the blank page. Each effort made is a step toward better writing skills. And writing skills matter across all professions and industries. Clear writing demonstrates clear thinking. Every boss, co-worker and customer appreciates when writing is easy to and takeaways are immediately known. And the benefits go beyond that.

Creativity & Persuasion: A Linkedin analysis of their data which has up 50,000 skills said the two most important soft skills for professionals were creativity and persuasion. Writing is a great way to improve both.

Protect Your Career: We already have bots who can write basic news stories or post-game reports, but creative writing that drives human interest is another story. Writing skills are good to have as automation becomes more prevalent.

Build Confidence: According to Susan K. Perry, Ph.D, depression and anxiety tend to cause rumination, repetitive dreary thoughts. When you’re in the flow of writing (whether personal or at work) you become deeply involved. Frustrations are pushed aside and confidence builds gradually.

Tackle writer’s block. Write without fear at work, and do it often. Your career, brain and mental state will benefit.

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