By Wendy Eichenbaum
We’ve all been there. The deadline for your document is looming. You start a new blank document in MS Word, type a few sentences, but don’t know what to write next. After staring at that white screen for a while, you walk away, hoping something will come to you later.
This is an all too familiar scenario for many people. We sit down and expect to start writing. Why is that? In school, we were taught to research a topic, and then write an essay that met a certain format. But when it came time to put pen to paper, we froze up trying to make sense out of our disparate pieces of research.
Writing a document, whether it’s an essay, blog article, white paper, etc., is more than the task of composing sentences. Writing a document actually is a four-step process: brainstorming, organizing, writing, and editing. These steps are serial because each step relies on the result of the previous step. Thus when we sit down at 1 am after reading a dozen articles, we’re not ready to work on step 3, writing.
Instead, we have to start at step 1, brainstorming. We’ve studied many ideas by others, but now we need to analyze all of that information and generate our own ideas. Brainstorming is the process of evaluating all of your research and then dumping all of your own ideas about your research onto a sheet of paper.
When you brainstorm, write down every idea. Don’t critique the ideas, review your grammar, or move the items around on the page. If you do, you’re no longer brainstorming. Instead, you’re organizing or editing. You’ll stop the flow of ideas because your brain cannot multi-task. Consider setting a timer. Keep brainstorming until the timer ends. You’ll be surprised at what comes up.
When you’re done, look at your screen. What do you see? You no longer have a blank page. Psychologically, that’s a huge step.
Now it’s time to organize. This is a sorting exercise. Keep moving your ideas between groups until you find the most logical associations. Initially, you could put one idea in several groups to visualize where the idea best fits. If you generate additional ideas, write them down & slot them into groups. If some ideas don’t seem to fit anywhere, place them in an “other ideas” category that you can review later.
The topic of each group and the document’s overall theme will crystalize when you finish organizing the ideas. Then arrange the groups into the order you want to present the information in your document. And finally, turn these groups into a detailed bullet list.
Now you are ready to write. To do this, re-write your bullet list into full sentences & paragraphs. At the end, you’ll have your rough draft. Now you can spend time editing for content, organization, and grammar.
When you are in the middle of a step, you may realize that you need to return to a previous step, whether you want to gather more data, reconsider the order of the information, or revise your prose. This is a natural part of the process. Just remember to focus on one step at a time.
Writer’s block is not your inability to compose a sentence. Instead, it’s a sign that you have not given yourself the time to consider, analyze, and organize your research. If we give ourselves the time to brainstorm and organize, then writing the sentences will feel like a natural progression. You won’t have to stare at an empty screen.
About the Author
Wendy Eichenbaum has been a UX professional since the early-1990’s. She began her career as a technical writer. She then earned a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, studying both writing and UI design. Over the years, she has worked across verticals, from start-ups to multi-national firms, in many areas of UX including research & strategy, Information Architecture, usability testing, and focus groups. She started her own UX consulting firm in 2008, Ucentric Design. And she is an adjunct professor at Cal State University, Fullerton. There she teaches a class that she created, User-Centered Design for Web and Mobile Interfaces.