“It must be so easy for you,” said the barber, as he clipped and shaped my hair.
“I hate having to sit down and write – all that space to fill.”
The truth is that it’s not always that easy. Sometimes, I too stare at the screen and think Where do I start?
So when BPS (blank-page sydrome) hits, here’s what I do:
1. See the big picture (aka think like an artist)
When I was a kid, I loved watching Rolf Harris. He dipped a big household paintbrush in a tin of paint and sloshed it on.
Not for him the minute drawing and millimetric precision of a draughtsman. He just put the color on the canvas and got on with it.
And from nothing, came something.
Suddenly, a painting emerged, and just before it did, Rolf would say those famous words.
“Can you tell what it is yet?”
So if you’re stuck, try starting with the big picture. Forget about the details – they’ll come later. For now, just throw the words on the page.
Start big, work small, and soon enough, the picture will emerge.
2. Begin at the end
Everything you write has a beginning, a middle and an end. But it’s not always easy to see them so clearly when you’re faced with BPS.
Often, you’ll know where you want to end up (you want somebody to call you, order your product, to arrange a sales visit) but you’re not sure how to get there.
So begin at the end, and work back.
Start with your call to action. Now go back one step to the body of your writing – the place where you list the compelling reasons. Give enough detail as you need.
You know you can’t start with that, so take another step backwards. How are you going to say hello, introduce your concept, pose a question?
Now you have the beginning.
Turn 180 degrees and start writing.
3. Work out what problem you solve
Everybody solves a problem.
Tesco saves me two whole hours every week by dropping off the shopping I’ve ordered online. I need more time; they give it to me.
Your accountant saves you the stress of struggling through your tax return. Plus, he makes sure you pay as little tax as possible, so he pays for himself.
Mostly, the problems people solve are to do with time (nobody’s got enough), money (ditto) or hassle (everybody’s got too much).
So what problem do you solve? Focus on that and you know where to begin.
4. Go back to basics
It’s so simple, but we rarely do it. And I’m often as guilty as anybody else.
Who are you writing for? 65-year-old retired men or teenage girls? Married women or divorced single dads? CEOs or technical directors?
What are you writing to them about? A new product, a special offer, a relaunch? How much detail should you give them?
Why should they take action? Have you given them compelling reasons? Are they really compelling? Become that teenage girl or divorced single dad for a moment. Are you convinced now?
Often, just working through these basic questions puts you ‘in the zone’. And then, there’s no holding you back.
5. Just do it
Remember that time you really didn’t want to go to the gym but you were glad you did when you got there? And how good it felt afterwards?
Writing’s no different.
Meanwhile back in the barber’s chair…
“So easy,” he echoed, looking dreamily into the mirror. His scissors were suspended above my hair.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dead fly floating in the bright-blue antiseptic. And I thought of just how difficult it is some days to put the first word on paper.
We all have off days, I wanted to say to him. Then I looked at the hovering scissors, and checked myself.
“Yes,” I said. “Pretty easy.”