How to Break Through Writer’s Block

BlockWhether you are a writer, a blogger, or anyone in any kind of field that involves tapping into your creative side, inevitably you will at some point hit a road block (or a mind block, so to speak.) It’s that sickening feeling in your stomach when you feel like you have run out of ideas or you just cannot move forward on a project. Here are a few tips that I sometimes use when I hit that brick wall.

Location, location, location

Change your setting – sometimes simply moving to another room can bring your head to a different place. Go work in a conference room, outside, at home, at the library, or at Starbucks. The key is to find that peaceful place where you can relax, think and get into your zone.

Go old school

Shut down your computer and pick up a pen and paper. Freely jot down ideas, words, phrases, or key points. Do some free association and you might be surprised what comes out. Don’t worry about having it make sense or sound good. Just get your ideas down and refine it later.

Do your homework

Knowledge is inspiration. Make sure you have done enough research and have asked the right people enough questions to write what you need to write. Know your subject and make sure you give yourself enough lead time to do research.

Who are you?

Just as important as knowledge about what you are writing, is knowledge about your audience. Understand for whom you are writing. Consumers, media, colleagues, peers, customers, or whoever it may be, get into their heads to understand how to write in their language.

What are you?

As you need to know your subject and your audience, you also need to understand your style. Writing copy for an ad, for packaging, for a web site, for a press release, or a blog post all require a different tone and style. Understand the platform that you need to stand on and write from that place.

Don’t think too hard

Sometimes if you are trying too hard or thinking too hard, the words just don’t come. Freedom is the key here. Relax your mind and let the words start flowing.

Don’t spread yourself too thin

Focus on one writing project at a time. Switching voices from a press release to marketing copy and back again takes a change of mindset. If you have multiple writing projects due at the same time, then take a break and tackle something different before returning to your writing.

Do your work in small bites

Don’t pressure yourself into sitting down and writing what you need to write in one sitting. Great writing rarely takes shape in the first shot. Break your writing projects into bite size pieces. Even if you feel stuck, just commit to fifteen minutes to write something…even if it’s just quick thoughts, ideas, or simply a list of free-associated keywords that you want to touch upon in the piece.

Plan projects to meet your mood

If you feel stuck on a press release, then switch to a different writing project that needs doing with a different voice, on a different subject. Not to procrastinate, but to be able to step away for a bit and switch your mind to something else. Be sure to make specific time to get back to it and try again.

What’s in your way?

Stop for a few minutes to try to understand what’s blocking you. Is it a lack of information, inspiration, time, or something else? Once you can understand what’s holding you back, you can try to tackle the underlying problem by seeking more information, resources, inspiration or setting aside more time.

Inspiration through conversation

Look for inspiration through conversations with your colleagues, or if you are out on your own, talk with your clients or your virtual colleagues. Bouncing ideas around with others knowledgeable in the subject can shed new light on a new angle that will free you up and get the words flowing.

Inspiration from unusual places

Sometimes inspiration can come from unexpected places. Stepping outside of your own world or your comfort zone can help you to see things from a different perspective.

Read More

Sometimes picking up a book or reading an article or a blog can work to inspire you to relate to a subject in a different way. Hop online, google your subject, and see what chatter is going on online. Look at what your competitors are doing and saying. Try to understand what works for them and why.

Write More

Don’t see writing as a task, see it as a way of life and as a process. Write for pleasure outside of work. Keep a journal, write poems, comment on blogs, write essays about your childhood – anything to keep writing fresh, exciting and diverse.

Eliminate ADD

Remove distractions. Shut off your email, so it’s not alerting you to new messages. Shut off the ringer on your phone. Shut down your Twitter and Facebook. Clear your desk of clutter and reminders of the hundreds of other things you have to do. Allow yourself the environment to be able to focus.

Are you a morning person or a vampire?

Determine your best time of day for creativity to flow. Are you best in the morning and burned out in the afternoon? Write during the time of day when you are most alert and save the more mundane tasks you need to do for when you don’t need as much brainpower. Fatigue does not promote creativity.

Take a deep breath

Relax. Take a walk. Exercise. Clear your head. Play with your dog. Incorporate a little time everyday for stress reduction. The more you stress, the worse it will be.

Feel free to add your own tips to this list….

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How To Bait Your Press Release Hook

FISHING 1In this multimedia world of promotion, there’s a lot of competition out there. More and more businesses are all elbowing each other for prime coverage in a limited number of promotional slots. Just sending out an informative press release isn’t good enough anymore. It’s noisy out there. Editors are scanning piles of releases and completely ignoring most. Here are a few key tips on how to put the right bait on your hook to get your business noticed and to help secure the coverage you desire.

Give it a catchy title
Catchy, not “Company X announces the launch of their new line for Fall.” Boring. Sorry that one will end up in the trash. Flip through the publications that you are pitching and get a sense of their language. Write the title for them in their style. Use metaphor, humor or other elements of language to catch the immediate attention of the reader.

Customize it
There’s nothing worse than mass produced press releases that are not targeted to anyone in particular, just “the press.” Draft a general release, but tweak it a bit depending on the publication that is being pitched. Say something that speaks to the recipient, do a little research and know what they are looking for. This takes more time and work, but results will be greater if your release is tailored to appeal specifically to the recipient.

Channel an editor when writing

Write your release like a journalist rather than an ad agency. You need to tell a story. But it isn’t just about a telling story; it’s about how you tell a story: the hook. Write the story with the intent to make the job of the editor easier and to grab their attention. Hand the story and the telling of the story to them on a silver platter and your business will get the coverage that you desire, and the editor will be a hero for coming up with a great story, your story.

Give it some emotion

It’s true that the best press releases are the ones that have all the elements of a great article. The worst ones read like a blurb in a catalog. If it’s too hard for the recipient to make a story out of it, they won’t get past the first sentence. Find the emotion behind what you are pitching and let it out. Use stories with humor, empathy, courage, sacrifice, passion or innovation to entice an editor into connecting with your business.

Relate it to the big picture
Connect your story to something bigger – relate it to something going on in the world at large. Don’t be too self-centered. You may think you have the best widget on the market, but not everyone will. Make it relatable to the big world.

Give it some personality

Add a couple of meaningful quotes from key players that show the personality, the heritage or the philosophy of your brand to add richness to the writing. Let the image that you want to create for your business shine through.

Give up ownership
There have been numerous occasions when I have seen copy from my press release reproduced verbatim in publications with someone else’s byline underneath the title. Although I may have had a momentary mind blip thinking, “Hey, I wrote that, not them,” I quickly snap out of it and realize that there was no better result that could have happened. They wrote exactly what I wanted them to write, sending my message for the brand that I am representing out there to the right audience. No chance of misinformation, misinterpretation or misquoting this time. There’s often not a whole heck of a lot that you can control when the writing about your brand is put into the hands of a magazine editor. If you write your release well, that problem will be solved for you.

Write it so your grandmother could read it

Literally. Don’t use tiny type. Don’t single space it. Boil it down and edit it. Then re-edit it. Think about how your release looks, not just how it reads. Make it visually easy to look at. No one will read a lengthy catalog blurb that you need a magnifying glass to see.

Hire a professional

Most everyone can type, but not everyone can write. There is a craft to effective writing and an art to knowing how to compose a press release to get a business noticed. Sometimes if you are too close to something, it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you. If you are struggling with getting attention for your business, then hire a professional to help you get off the ground. (And oh, by the way, I can help with that ☺)

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Has Social Media Cheapened Creative Talent?

pulpfictionOne of the basic concepts in social media and online networking and marketing is about giving, yet there seems to be a lot more taking going on lately. Although I agree that the participation in the social web absolutely needs to have that element of helpfulness, it doesn’t mean that professional creative services should be expected to be given away for free or for a few bucks. Here are a few recent scenarios that have come to my attention:

In various LinkedIn discussion groups:
Someone asking for “suggestions” for a new tag line for their company.
Someone asking for “suggestions” for re-branding of a web domain.
Someone asking for the best solutions to market their brand.

Craig’s List:
Someone asking for product designs on spec: Create it, design it, give it to us and if we like it, we’ll pay you.

Indeed.com:
A prominent children’s brand looking for a product designer to work unpaid for 3 months which “may lead to a paid position.”

Numerous online news or information sites:
Writers provide free content or content for a few bucks an article in exchange for “exposure.”

Online printers:
Offering a free clip art logo with every printing job.

These are just a few of the myriad of examples of businesses looking for and/or taking free or nearly free, design, marketing or content to build their own businesses. There’s nothing wrong with helping people, offering advice and yes, sometimes offering limited services for free or at a discount, but there seems to be a disconnect somewhere that discounts talent and quality which, in turn, devalues and cheapens creative work.

A good example here is the case of the online printing service offering a free clip art logo with every printing job. This company is not a graphic design house, they are a printing house. A more appropriate offer might be to giveaway an extra few pieces of whatever is being printed. Giveaway the printing, not low level clip art logos. Yes it’s a logo, and yes, the customer might need a logo, but it’s not doing the customer any favors by offering them a logo that looks like it was designed by a 5th grader. There actually is no value in doing that, because even if their customer doesn’t realize the low quality, the marketplace probably will, and a poor unprofessional image will be projected.

It seems that it’s becoming a common practice to not only ask for, but expect creative work for free or virtually free. There is that old saying that “you get what you pay for.” This isn’t to say necessarily that the more expensive something is the better, but it’s safe to say that most professional quality work is not going to be found for free. The problem here lies in when businesses don’t see or know the difference between professional quality work and low level work that appears to fill a particular need at a particular time for a bargain or lower than bargain price. Is it really still true that content and quality is king or is a bargain the new reigning ruler? Is this a larger cultural question? Let me know what you think…

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Are You Walking or Crossing the Personal Line on Your Blog?

lineinthesandThere are a lot of people talking online these days about the importance of injecting personal information into your blog. Although I completely agree that you have to show who you are as a person to your readership in order make a connection and create loyal readers, I think the level of personal exposure completely depends on the type of blog you have and where you draw your line personally.

If it’s a business related blog and it’s connected to a business of providing professional services or products, then I think there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Your business blog should offer your personality through occasional anecdotes and snippets of personal experiences as they are relevant to your viewpoint. On the other hand, if it’s a blog about a personal journey as a parent, cancer survivor, traveler or any other “journal” type blog, then revealing more intimate information would be appropriate and relevant.

In both cases it’s important to establish boundaries that are right for you. It’s also important to remember that anyone with a computer has the potential to read what you write, which on one level is an exciting thought and on another is kind of a creepy thought. I think some people tend to reveal a bit too much information, almost forgetting that, although they may have a core group of readers that may “know” them, they are also revealing themselves to the entire blogosphere, including the good, the bad, and the creepy. We all know this to be true, but sometimes tend to forget while we are interacting with our circle of blogging friends. You wouldn’t hang your underwear out to dry on the sidewalk in front of your house or set up a speaker system so everyone in the neighborhood can hear the personal discussions you have inside your own home. The same should be true of your blog.

On the other side, a blog is not a white paper. Factual information is a good thing on a business related blog, but the person behind the blog needs to be revealed at least to some extent. Readers want to know that there is a real person behind a words, not just a machine or committee producing a factual, well researched report or crafted corporate speak. I think it’s important to know the difference between walking the line and crossing the line and being able find that magic spot that works for you.

On this blog, I do reveal things about my life to my readers, but only when it’s relevant to what I am writing about. I think most of my regular readers know about my right brain tendencies and my creative entrepreneurial approach to looking at things. They know that I am married to a designer and know we have an 11-year-old son. They know that I go to the flea market on Sundays looking for cool old stuff. They know that I used to watch the Jetsons when I was a kid and that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Seuss. But more importantly, I think they get to know me through my perspective on the various topics I write about. Your personal qualities should show through when you write, even some of your more imperfect human ones. Being a human is a good thing.

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Does Arrogance Build Trust in the Social Media World?

Picture 1This has been brewing in my head for a while, and to be honest, I’ve been a little hesitant to write about it, but when I saw the description of the session that Chris Brogan is going to be leading at IZEAFEST, I decided (after some advice from a few folks at Copyblogger) to speak my mind. Now,  I have no idea who wrote the description, but regardless of whether Brogan wrote it himself or someone wrote it for him,  it really rubbed me the wrong way. I know Chris Brogan is a “Trust Agent” and all, and maybe it’s supposed to be funny or edgy or something, but I find it simply arrogant, complete with the intense close up photo of Brogan looking like an angry daddy about to tell the kids to go to their room.

Here’s the copy from the site:

“If you’re dipping your toe into social media, blogging, and all the other tools related to content marketing, either ‘jump in or get the Hell outta my water!’
Businesses are ready NOW, and they want professional treatment in bridging the gap between how they USED to do online marketing and advertising and how they will in the coming months.
Join Chris Brogan for a cuss-out, and a set of next steps to take home to your teams.”

This bothers me on multiple levels:

1. “If you’re dipping your toe into social media, blogging, and all the other tools related to content marketing, either ‘jump in or get the Hell outta my water!’”…Excuse me, but whose water is it that people are supposed to either jump into or get the hell out of?  The last time I checked, no one actually owned the vast ocean that we call social media.
2. “Businesses are ready NOW and they want professional treatment” …This implies that they are ready but everyone except for Chris Brogan is not prepared now to guide them or treat them professionally.
3. “Join Chris Brogan for a cuss-out” ….Hmm, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t spend a sizable chunk of change to attend a conference to be cussed out by a Trust Agent.
4. “a set of steps to take home to your teams” …. Let’s all hope that everyone there takes copious notes so that they can all follow Chris Brogan’s steps to success. Everyone has his or her own way of working and thinking. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all.

I had been a subscriber to Brogan’s blog, but the straw that broke it for me was a recent post of his that detailed the minutiae of his day, right down to what he ate for breakfast. There are people who apparently care about that, because he got many comments and RTs for that post, exclaiming amazement at just how busy he is, but instead of impressing me or building trust in me, it had the opposite effect and I unsubscribed.

Arrogance is very unappealing to me. I have never been one to blindly follow or believe everything I hear, even if it is from an expert. I don’t think anyone should. I listen to all kinds of people, all kinds of ideas and take a wide range of thinking into consideration when I form my opinions and methods of doing things. But in my opinion this time, arrogance does not build trust or respect. What do you think?

screen shot from izeafest.com

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A Thousand Words Is Worth A Picture

BostonWeeklyJournal

I am a confessed antique treasure hunting junkie.  Some people go to church on Sunday, but I go to Todd Farm Flea Market in search of what, I’m never quite sure, but I know it when I see it.

This past Sunday on my usual trip to Todd, I picked up a Boston Newspaper that dated from 1858. When the seller said “a buck,” I couldn’t refuse.  When I got home, I opened it up and started to read. It’s a huge piece of  paper about 20X28 with teeny tiny type, 4 or 6pt at the most, with no pictures or illustrations, just words.  The stories are just that, stories and I couldn’t find much of anything that resembled what we would today consider to be news. One story in particular caught my eye and made me realize just how much communication has changed from then to now:

Scene In A Metropolitan Railroad Car

Yesterday afternoon, as one of the cars on the Metropolitan Railroad rolled along its rails, a lady, extensively beflounced and expansively crinolined, beckoned to the polite conductor as it was passing West Street, in order to take passage to the South End.  Her robe was in a state of delicious newness: its tissue folds were hardly cold from the modiste’s last artistic touch, and her attire was altogether gotten up evidently with a reckless regard of expense. The car was only partly filled – one side free from incumbrance. Upon its cushions she sat herself at ease with thought for her robe’s intactness uppermost, and spread its voluminous flounces carefully to their natural amplitude. She cast her eyes at the conductor with an air of composure, sang froid, and self-collectedness.

“Conductor,” she asked in the blandest of manners and most mellifluous of tones, “how many seats do I occupy?”

Taken by surprise, he glanced from one side to the other of her extended dress, and then at her. The lady’s face was serenely interrogative.

“About four, I should think Madam,” he said, wondering what would come next.

“Here are twenty cents,” she said, dropping the dimes from her lavender-kidded fingers into his extended palm. “ I do not wish to be disturbed.”

One would have thought the possibility of disturbing such a supreme embodiment of composure rather impossible; but having secured herself from the chance, in spite of stares and whispers, the quadrupled-fare pursued her way happily and uncreasedly  to her destination. It was a spectacle to admire. We commend her example to all ladies of similar balloonish dimensions.

Now in today’s language, this article could easily be reduced to the 140 characters of Twitter:

Wealthy woman wearing a big fancy dress, pays four times the trolley fair for the four seats she and her fluffy garments occupied.

But does that fill you with the image that the 19th century version does? I recently read a post on Copyblogger about editing your writing, only saying what you really have to say and not “falling in love with your words.”  But take a look at the adjectives and adverbs used in the article: beflounced, uncreasedly, crinolined, delicious newness, lavendar-kidded fingers, balloonish dimensions – what can get better than that in conjuring up a perfect image of this fine lady of Boston.

Yes, editing is good, unnecessary words are bad, but in this world of  OMG, BTW, LOL, don’t forget to serve up a few tasty adverbs and adjectives now and then. Just choose the right ones. Writing is an art that has the power to create powerful and clear images, depending on the words that you pick. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with falling in love with your words. There’s got to be some kind of passion behind what your are doing or saying or writing or there is no point.

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Excuse Me, Your SEO is Showing

underwearshowingNot to date myself here, but I started writing before SEO was part of modern vocabulary. I learned to write with conviction and clarity, to creatively communicate meaning, and to carefully choose words that would draw in a human reader rather than attract a robot. I learned the craft of writing as an art, not a science.

Writing has changed now with the desire to have a strong online presence and to show up first in a Google search or on Digg’s front page. Writing, at least the online sort, seems to have taken a turn for the science, often abandoning the art. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of SEO in online content, but it seems that SEO has become of primary concern in most online writing. There are an overabundance of SEO keyword dense headlines and articles floating around out there, and it always seems so obvious which are written with SEO as the primary goal.

Keyword driven headlines and content may be search friendly, but when they show up in a search, are they compelling enough for a human to respond, click and read? Or does that not matter anymore? Copyblogger recently posted an article by Dave Navarro about the importance of headlines. In the article, it was stated that, “it’s well known that many Digg users vote on articles based on article titles and descriptions without ever actually reading the stories.” I find it a little disheartening that people aren’t reading content anymore, just headlines. If this is true, does this mean that the written word, the actual meaning the words has taken a backseat to searchable terms?

The creative soul that I am can’t help but want to make a pretty sentence that a human might read and respond to. I admittedly spend way too much time crafting and editing everything that I write. I have to consciously force the science in once the art is done. In my book, art comes first and science comes second. Just the same, the scientists among us also have to try to remember to bring art into their writing. Take the SEO formula and add a few swipes of a paintbrush to it, so it is compelling and appealing to humans as well as robots. I guess the trick is for the artists and the scientists to begin to mingle and mix it up a bit. You know, like in the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial: you got peanut butter on my chocolate or you got chocolate in my peanut butter. Maybe art and science should rub up against each other a little bit more. When the two elements are put together in the right amounts, they can actually taste pretty good.

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What’s wrong with this sign?

Walking around town the other day, I came across this sign in the window of a local store:
photo

I also saw a similar sign today that read, “Free Wood For Sale.” Actually, I didn’t see it, my son did while we were driving home. He swiftly noticed the irony in the message and reported it to me (that’s my boy!). Maybe I’m just a little nuts, but stuff like this drives me crazy. Didn’t anyone read these signs and realize how ridiculous they were? Tops on my list of pet peeves are errors and visual offenses in signage and print ads. Misuse of possessive vs. plural is particularly annoying to me. This is one of my strange obsessions I guess, but I always look at signage and ads in search of errors, verbal and visual.

Just as there are rules for grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling, there are also rules of graphic design. A graphic can become visually ineffective, confusing, or outright visually offensive, simply by the choice of font style, font size, color, placement, and shapes.

It all comes down to attention to detail. If you can’t spell, then use spell check. If you are grammatically deficient, then have someone edit and proofread for you. If you can’t write, then hire a writer. If you can’t design, then hire a designer. It’s like one of those poor tone-deaf people auditioning for American Idol, truly thinking they can sing, only to put themselves on national television for the ultimate in public humiliation. Before you go ahead and plaster grammatical, syntactical, spelling or graphic errors and offenses on the front of your store, on a billboard, in an ad, on your blog or in any public forum, stop and make sure that the message is clear and the visuals are appealing. Presentation is everything.

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