7 Quick-Start Techniques for
Fighting the Fear to Write

image of woman hiding behind fingers

Congratulations, you have a hot writing assignment!

Maybe it’s a proposal that could make your company’s fortune.

Maybe it’s your first professional writing gig.

It could even be a guest post for Copyblogger.

The stakes are high . . . and you know it.

In fact, it’s all you can think about . . . the F.E.A.R. trying to sabotage your aspirations for success. Your fingers are shaking too hard to type anything, and your stomach has sunk down to the bottom of an ocean so deep that all the fish have weird lights on their heads.

Well that’s not helping any, now is it?

Instead, let’s get those pixels flowing with these 7 not-too-scary steps.

1. Write down your goal

What does success look like? Get imaginative, specific and visceral.

Imagine yourself being awarded with the Employee of the Month trophy while your boss announces:

Without Catherine’s vital work on the proposal, we would never have won this contract. Now we will be giving bonuses to all our staff and hiring three new ones, and we couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks, Catherine.

Everyone is clapping and there’s cake.

This goal serves two purposes:

  1. It encourages you to get writing.
  2. It gives you a way to measure whether your writing is effective. If it increases the chance of the successful proposal/trophy/cake then it’s effective. If it does not, then you need to make changes. An objective yardstick is critical when your emotions are getting the better of you.

2. Plan your content

Grab your favorite brainstorming tool. Could be mind-mapping software, a bunch of index cards, parchment and quill pen . . . whatever suits you.

  • Start with the high-level ideas. If you’re writing a sales page, you need to describe the benefits, so that’s an entry. The call to action is another.
  • What content do you need to provide to support the high-level ideas? In the last example, each specific benefit would have a separate entry.
  • Go down as many levels as you need to until every entry makes only one point.
  • Evaluate the entries. Does each one move you toward your goal? Can some be removed? What order makes the most sense?

Shuffle and remove entries until you have a working plan of what to write. Notice you now have a nice, clear idea of what the finished document should look like.

Awesome.

It’s time to take a deep breath and start on the actual writing.

3. Ten minutes of gibberish

If you’re looking at the blank screen with mounting horror (Have I forgotten the English language entirely?), open a new document and pound out anything.

  • A history of cheese
  • The lyrics of your favorite song
  • A stream-of-consciousness piece that starts with “Daffodil Philomena carousel elf-wine fodder marmalade”
  • A cake recipe
  • An imaginary shopping list
  • Endless lines of All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

Don’t force it to make sense! Just let it flow out with no judgment or expectations. When there’s no pressure to get anything Right, for many people the mental vapor-lock vanishes. They can go back and start writing the important stuff.

4. Divide your ideas into sections

Remember back in school when we were taught, “One idea per paragraph”?

Still a good idea, although you may need more than a paragraph. But each section of your document should convey one idea, and only one.

Introduce each section with a good subhead to make the document more readable and keep your ideas organized.

You can go back and adjust your content plan to include extra ideas, but give each idea its own section and subhead.

5. Explain it to the potted plant

If you’re trying to make a point and you’re . . . umm . . . you know, how do I say it . . . it’s on the tip of my tongue . . . stuck on how to explain it?

Talk it out with another person. It doesn’t actually need to be a real person. It can be to the potted plant on the windowsill.

You’ll start out stumbling and inarticulate, but quickly the thoughts will come together and you’ll have it all sorted in your head.

Or you may realize that this was one of those ideas that seemed good at first blush but doesn’t really make any sense. That’s fine too. Delete it and move on.

6. Editing, your deadly new friend

After you’ve written what you need to write, the dreaded post-writing stage kicks in. This is where you edit your work to make it the best it can possibly be. Revising, polishing, reordering and spell-checking are all wonderful tools. They help you make your point more clearly and concisely.

BUT.

Perfectionism, the copywriter’s curse, loves editing. If you’re not careful, deadlines will fly by while you make infinitesimal improvements.

Never try to write and edit at the same time. Write first, edit later.

Focus on removing words when editing. This doesn’t mean you can’t tell a relevant story or insert an interesting adjective, but every word must contribute to that goal you set out in Step 1.

Set an upper limit on revisions. For truly critical documents, you might go as high as ten revisions. But pick a number and stick to it, no matter how much you think, “Oh but I just have this one tweak . . .”

7. Still overwhelmed?

Today I’m releasing a new resource called Awesome Fear-Wrangling: Manage your Website Fears, Grow an Awesome Website. If you want some industrial-strength help, come check it out!

(There’s a special bonus today too. It’s my birthday. There’s cake.)

What are your techniques to get you writing when you’re facing a bunch of fear? Tell us in the comments!

About the Author: Catherine is wicked passionate about helping people to start and grow an awesome website. When she’s not adding five-minute missions to BeAwesomeOnline.com, she can invariably be found on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Write first and edit later. Oh boy, I need to remember that. I can take forever to write a simple post when I try to do both at the same time.

  2. I sometimes get the fear to write when I’m writing for a public audience. What I do to overcome that when it strikes is to shut the audience out of my head. I do this in a couple ways, depending on the situation.

    1) I write for a while in my own personal journal or for myself, somewhere that nobody else is going to be reading and judging it… then, once I’m in writing mode, it’s easy to switch over and write for the public.

    2) I close my eyes, tilt my head back and just start writing whatever comes to my mind and out my fingers. I don’t worry about the editing or anything else. I just write without looking at the screen or the keyboard. By doing this, I’m able to let my mind and fingers relax, and usually my thoughts end up flowing a lot better that way.

    Great article, thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m loving the 10 minutes of gibberish idea – I’m just crazy enough to say that I’ve tried that and it does work. It might also make you start laughing hysterically at what you come up with – no good if you’re working in a quiet cubicle setting…people might think you’re crazy! (Oh yeah, I forgot…) :)

  4. I ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS write first and edit last. It’s such a good way to not get caught up in the details.

    I really needed this post today! Thanks!

  5. #3 is a great tip.

    I had a writing teacher in grad school who would always tell us, “Drop your standards churn out text.”

    If you try to edit too much as you go, it’s too easy to kill good ideas while they’re starting to sprout. You’ll know what’s worth keeping once enough of it shows.

  6. Oh how true this is – I have a big web content job to work on and just threw some ideas out at a friend to see if I was on the right track – not only did she tell me that I was but in talking to her I solved a problem that had been taking up brainspace!
    A great post, thank you for sharing.

  7. The gibberish one, I have often done with slightly less gibberish. Just trying to hyper-write everything as fast as possible. Another way I have done it, is to open a book and start retyping the stuff I read. The revise that paragraph, and make one up. Then read and type another – and by that point, you would rather work than continue being pointless.
    And I do appreciate your love of cake.

  8. Excellent points. I especially love the gibberish one. I find that the more I write (about whatever) the better I am able to write purposely for my writing assignments. I do this also with my podcasts (http://catholicfoodie.com). Perfectionism is wickedly evil. And I have to work really hard to avoid its clutches. Just “getting it all out” has been the best solution for me. Cheers!

  9. These are all great tips for getting started writing. Writing is such a creative process and a key step is to just start writing something – you can work out the details later.

    The post provides a very practical and effective way to approach writing.

  10. Gibberish is a new idea for me and sounds great. One my personal tactics is that I tell myself I can just slap it down on the page and can edit it into greatness later. So instead of censoring myself, I go as wide or crazy as I want to, knowing that half of that will be edited out a few hours later.

  11. Sage advice! I have less than a week to complete a feature for reputable magazine… a big deal! and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. My confidence comes in my love for the subject matter, however actually creating the piece folks/editor will love ? hence, the knawing “fear” factor.

    Thanks for your timely post!

    Clara.

  12. It’s always really nice to get some easy-to-follow steps when we’re in freakout mode. Thanks C. :)

  13. You had me laughing with the cake and clapping part. Same with the talking to plants. It’s funny because it’s so true.

    I try reading my stuff out loud just to make sure it’s more a conversational tone. Breathing a little life into copy never hurts.

    Your copy sings by the way, and Happy B-day!

  14. Why did you write (Have I forgotten the English language entirely?) there? To me it seemed an OK sentence, having said that English is my second language and I have little knowledge over it.

    I can guess that you wrote that simply because that sentence was literally incorrect. But to me it seemed correct. That’s why I’m asking what’s the significance of that bracket-line there.

  15. Catherine,
    Thank you for the great pointers. I will never forget
    when I was listening to a self development book and it said if I want to be an author, I need to read a lot of books.
    I know, I can already hear the “duh” hence, the reason I was reading it.
    If we all could go back and remember what it was like to be a child. The time when expressing ourselves was delightful, this world would be a much different place.

    I really appreciate your contribution and I am headed over to your site

    Best wishes,
    Jeff Faldalen
    The Prospecting Funnel Guy

  16. @Aminul, Catherine was pointing to the feeling people have when they sit down to write and it’s almost like they can’t remember how to construct a single sentence.

    @Toronto, I liked the cake as well. Then again, I’m always a fan of clapping and cake.

  17. @Jean, I must confess when I’m writing under normal circumstances I do it often. But you’re right, it really does take a lot longer. :)

    @Chris, Great techniques! Thanks for sharing them.

    @Kiesha You’re right, I should have mentioned that problem! :)

    @Amanda, Thanks! I’m glad it helped you.

    @Clay, I think what stops a lot of people from doing it is that you DO often have to throw out a lot of stuff when you realise that you need to clarify (or completely change) your point. But you get MUCH better writing that way.

    @Katherine, You’re welcome!

    @Martypants, hooray for cake! Re-writing an existing work is another great unblocker, I love it.

    @Jeff Young, I am a one-woman crusade against perfectionism! It’s good to have someone on my side. :)

    @Tony Woody, Thank you! I hope it helps you if you ever get stuck.

    @P.S. Jones, Wide and crazy is great. How often do you find the seeds of fantastic new content in what you write?

    @Clara, Good luck! Come and chat on my website if you’re stuck.

    @Sonia, Thank YOU. :)

    @Toronto Dentist, Thank you! And reading it out loud is a great tip.

    @Aminul Islam Sajib, I’m sorry that was unclear for you! I was talking about the fear that you’ve forgotten how to write at all, let alone do it well. Does that make sense?

    @Jeff Faldalen, Thanks! :) Look forward to seeing you over there.

  18. Hi Catherine,

    The tips are fantastic and I’m printing this article out so that I can have a reference besides my laptop when I’m ready to write.

    One other aspect not mentioned is the fear that what we write today will be around potentially ‘forever’ on the internet. That fear and it’s companion (perfectionism) can be very hard to overcome. It makes you stop and second-guess yourself and your writing. I think we just have to take the advice of ‘just write’ and edit later.

    Get something down on paper, even if it’s not perfect and get it out there. Hopefully, over time, the less ‘perfect’ articles will be vastly numbered by the fantastic ones we write :-)

    Karen

  19. @Karen, Definitely! You start out slow but end up magnificent if you can get over that fear. But if you let those fears win, you’re never going to build up enough practice to be fantastic!

  20. @Karen, whenever I worry about stuff hanging around forever (I know it’s true, I have bulletin board post still up from 1997) I just promise myself that I am going to write so many more posts/articles/comments that the crummy ones will get buried and no one will find them.

    If I don’t write, I won’t improve. If I don’t publish, I won’t improve enough because I won’t have anything at stake.

    @Catherine, great ideas. Like every writer I can always use a new system to break through page fright.

  21. @Tammi. I bet you have some doozies of your own. What’s your favourite?

  22. Hi Catherine, you’re blog post struck a chord with me because it was able to explain some of the things that make some of my post susccessful. I’ve always loved reading all the blog material on copyblogger every chance I get at lunch.

    Especially about sticking to one point at one time. It’s easy for me wanting to cover so much in one blog, but I breathe and remind myself that that idea can be left for another day.

    And the best part of just writing, even if things aren’t perfect, is the part to see how far our own writing has come along over the years and being proud of how entertaining and informative they have become. Like Karen, I’m posting this one up next to me when I need guidance on writing.

  23. Hi Catherine,
    I had a problem when I write on my blog.I love editing everything eventhough the entry is only half way finished. Sometimes,I delete entirely what I had written before and begin from the scratch.

    Is it something that I need to change?

    p/s:sorry,my blog is not in English

  24. @Muhammad Fakhruddin, It depends! If you are happy with the entry when you finish, and you have enough time to start from scratch? Then it’s okay.

    But if you are not happy with that way of writing, try making a plan before you start. That helps me sometimes.

    P.S. Your English is great.

  25. Dealing with fear is actually something I’ve been wrangling with a lot lately -this article gave me some good tricks to use. The trick I turn to when I’m in a rut or afraid to work is to write or create something totally outside my normal range of work -I’m not a great poet, but writing poetry forces me to think outside my mental block, and it makes it a good detour into writing what I’m actually supposed to work on. Drawing and even playing with PlayDoh can help -as long as it’s something creative and different from the norm, I’m willing to try it.

  26. @Vincent Ng, I think you’ve got it exactly right. Well done.

    @Bailey, those are great techniques too!

  27. I love your style of writing… and am in total agreement with the points you make about writing. I just wrote a blog post called “Fear is a four letter word,” not dealing with writing, but with dealing with fears in general. Reading your blog today took my thoughts back to my life’s work – writing.

    I have also written in the past about dealing with “writer’s block,” saying “just start writing!” Although our writing styles are very different, our advice is similar.

    I love your casual, conversational style and will look forward to your future posts! (Am now following you on Twitter.)

  28. @Catherine Almost never! But I do a lot of laughing when I’m editing so I think it’s worth it.

  29. @Debra, Thanks very much! I’ll see you there. :)

    @P.S. Jones I think so too. :)

  30. This a great article! Thanks for the ideas, they are all easy to use!

    I especially love #5-talking to the pot plant! I find myself explaining ideas out loud (to nobody) all the time, without meaning to, but somehow it helps me to refine my point. I like to hear the words out loud, and sometimes I just need to start chatting with myself to get the ideas flowing onto the page!

  31. Siita Rivas :

    Catherine, I liked the sense of fun and humour that shines through your writing as you present some useable tips. I wouldn’t have recognised it but I must be fearful because I use the delete button more often than the alphabet keys. I am about to completely revamp my website so I’m hoping there’s a spot for awesome Australian website aspirants at your place. See you on the other side. xS

  32. @Siita, of course there is! :)

  33. Hi Catherine,

    I am going through this presently and it feels like this post was written with me on your mind. My worst fault is trying to edit whilst I’m writing…
    I’m sure I complete my four proposals before July. Thanks!

  34. Cool post. Can you do one for lack of time/energy/access to a PC?!

    RE: Explain it to a potted plant – I think you should always read a bit of text out. If you trip over a word or phrase then sure as hell your readers will, too. Or to put it another way: if it sounds rubbish to you, just think how bad it’ll sound to your audience.

  35. Great tips Catherine. My best posts are the one that I write and edit later. When I look at it later I always notice a better way to say something.

    Lately I have really been focusing on your tip of removing words when editing. I look at each sentence and ask myself if any of the words are really necessary. I have found that I generally remove quite a few words that simply add fluff with no real advantage.

    One thing that has really helped me lately is starting a blog post after I write a comment on another blog. While I am writing the comment I think of additional things I would like to add. So I copy the comment and then I keep writing.

  36. Hi guys,

    It takes a lot of motivation to get me to write. This is why I avoid it at all cost. But once I get motivated the words flow freely. I don’t have any 3, 4 or 7 steps. Just motivation. Happy Birthday!!!!

    Kind regards,

    Sam
    X

  37. Really good post. I’ve recently come across one technique to help me when the fear sets in… but I’ll save it for a guest post :D

  38. When Need to write and fear sets in I talk it out to the dog. It helps.

  39. If I concentrate to much on making the content perfect, I end up with a severe case of writers block.

    The first thing I always do is write. I don’t stop for typos, or bad grammar, I just keep it going like a freestyle.

    When I feel I’ve gotten my general point across then comes the editing.

    You put out some great tips on this post , Thanks Catherine!

  40. Yes, that does. Thanks for your response and not avoiding to answer, as lots of famous bloggers do. :)

  41. Tea. Tea and the knowledge that if I don’t write, I’m doomed…creatively, intellectually, and financially are my two best inspirations for starting any assignment.

  42. @Catherine – my favorite technique for combating page fright is freewriting. I close my eyes or shut off the monitor and start typing. Solves the backspace and editing issues for me.

    For blog posts and other internet writing I also feel reassured that I will get a chance to write it better someday. It’s a strange paradox that just as words have become digitally durable, they have also become somewhat disposable.

    Finally, the best advice is to start a writing assignment when assigned, not when it is due. Just like we sabotage our writing when we edit while we write, we sabotage our editing when we don’t write early enough to allow for a proper rest and edit.

  43. Another great piece of advice I heard once was to tape your article and so forth into a recorder. Most people find it easier then writing and when you transpose it into writing, it would help keep the piece more conversational and approachable.

  44. Never face a blank page. Take those index cards Catherine mentioned or whatever you scratched your ideas out on and thread them out into notes on a page; then add to them, move them around, play with them. You’re not writing then; you’re just making notes :). And suddenly you realize the thing is taking shape beneath your hands. Another hint: Don’t take fear of writing so seriously. No one ever died of fear of writing. Just push ahead, remind yourself that you have skills, use them, trust them.

  45. I like the 10 minutes of gibberish method. This has worked tremendously for me.

  46. I love planning my posts out in sections. It’s how my brain thinks and I feel the my content actually comes out with a purpose.

  47. For me, a really good way that helped me to get over my fear of writing was to set up a blog where I just wrote and wrote and wrote. No editing. Just sitting down and writing daily. A lot of it is low quality. But it improves over time, and now that particular blog has over 400 active subscribers, so it can’t be THAT bad :-)
    Plus, online you can do it anonymously, so that helps to relax.

  48. What lovely extra tips. Thanks, guys!