The blank screen can be daunting.
How often have you started to write a memo on policy updates, an annual report or even an email only to find yourself staring at a blank screen? Many professionals struggle to get started writing — even though they have a general idea of what they should say, they don’t know what to say first.
This problem is actually about process. Unlike professional writers, most of us haven’t perfected our writing process, but we still have to overcome blank screen syndrome and communicate effectively using the written word. Whenever our current process was developed, it was something we came up with in order to deal with the work in front of us, using only our own experience and desperation as a guide.
Some of us jot down ideas on a post-it note or write a line of text on the screen just so the page isn’t blank. You might organize your workspace before preparing to write or write a first sentence only to delete it over and over again until you come up with the perfect beginning. For most of us, the processes we use to write are not based on research.
Research shows that professional writers spend most of their time before they write something and after they’ve drafted something, not writing the actual document. We can learn from them. Writing should be the fastest part of the process. Before we start writing, we need to spend more time planning.
The essential parts of planning are about decision-making:
1) Identifying the central goal of the message: if you are clear on the central goal of the message, your reader will be better able to identify the goal of the message.
2) Visualizing who the message is going to: when you visualize the audience, you help your brain automatically adjust your language to that audience. We all change our language depending on who we are talking to — we don’t speak the same way to a family member as we do to a colleague. We use different words, different sentence structures, different tones and emotional content. Our brain automatically changes the language we use when we see a person in front of us. But when we write, we are looking at the screen, which doesn’t trigger our brains to adapt our language at all. So, we need to spend time thinking about the audience in order to help our brain choose the language appropriate to that audience.
3) Deciding what is the best way to send the message: different ways of communicating have advantages and disadvantages. Speaking face to face with someone allows us to use facial expressions, gestures, posture and other nonverbal cues to supplement our language. Research shows that between 66% and 94% of face-to-face communication is nonverbal; the most cited study suggests 93%. All of the research then agrees that most face-to-face communication is nonverbal. Sometimes that’s important. Other times, we don’t need or want to see the other person or want them to see us. Written communication tends to be a faster way to reach large groups of people, so we choose it more often. It also allows us to write messages when we have time and for the audience to read them when they have time. And writing has a permanence that verbal communication doesn’t have. Sometimes we want to have something in writing; other times, we don’t. Making thoughtful choices about how we communicate ensures that our communication is more deliberate and effective rather than just expedient.
4) Figuring out what comes first: what comes first affects how the audience perceives everything else. The beginning of the message sets the tone for the rest, so we need to spend more time on the beginning — whether crafting a strong subject line and using a polite greeting in an email or thinking about how to begin a meeting about coronavirus work-from-home policies — because that opening will make the audience more or less likely to engage with everything else we say.
Once these choices are made, we are much better prepared to write our message, which is why so many resources on business writing focus on helping professionals create the habit of planning the message before they start writing. It sounds like planning would add more time to the process, but because you become more effective at writing the message, planning (after cultivating the habit) actually makes writing faster and easier.
Poor writing costs American businesses close to $400 billion every year. Establishing a process that makes writing faster and easier is important. Learn the steps to take before writing and the questions to ask when planning your document during Better Business Writing, an online course beginning July 20 that provides professionals the tools they need to write more effectively in business contexts.
About the Author:
Jenny Morse, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of Appendance, a Colorado-based company that provides business writing consulting. Appendance’s new online course, Better Business Writing, teaches participants what to do before they write and how to do so more effectively in business contexts.