When I decided to start West River Studios and turn my passion for writing and photography into a full-time business, I had to commit to a daunting task: Creating A LOT of content on command. You see, creating content for fun, when you feel like it, is a very different reality from having to write quality content every single day, both for yourself and for paying clients. And sometimes, it doesn’t come easy.
But over the years, I’ve developed an approach to starting a creative content project (especially a bigger project, like creating the full copy for a client website) that helps me beat that inevitable creativity block that always seems to visit me at all the wrong times.
By changing ONE simple thing in how I begin projects, I’ve saved countless hours—but it’s probably not what you think.
Because when we think of a writer at work, the stereotypical image of a writer, alone in a room, sitting at the computer, furiously typing away while drinking lots of coffee, probably comes to mind. And the majority of the time, that image is a relatively accurate depiction.
But never when I’m just starting a project. Because if I sit down at my computer, ready to get going on creating something awesome, it doesn’t work. And I know this because I’ve tried, and without fail, when I’d sit down at my computer to get started on a big project, the blank screen would just stare at me. Cursor blinking. Page whiter than anything I’ve seen. And soon, the entirety of the project would feel too daunting, and I’d have no idea where even to start.
And then I’d just feel STUCK.
If you’ve ever felt like that before, then you know what happens after that: First, you freak out and think that you’re obviously no good at what you do and you’re never going to be able to write again. You contemplate quitting your job and doing something that would never require you to be creative again, because it’s an impossible thing to do anyway.
Once you realize that’s not an option, you commit to sitting at the screen until IT WORKS. “I will sit here, staring at this screen, until the magical writing God comes to me,” you declare. But whether or not you believe in the muse, she usually doesn’t show up when commanded. So, you move to just writing ANYTHING. A thought comes to mind? Put it on the page! Don’t know what to say? Write that, too! I’m actually a big fan of brainstorming through freewriting, but you’re often still left with jumbled thoughts, which usually means that when it’s time to organize and revise for a more structured project, the stuck-ness inevitably comes back.
Eventually, you might just give in to pleading at the screen, hoping it will feel pity on you and just let you do the thing you need to do.
And yet, there you are—white page, blinking cursor, and not a single thing worth reading.
If you can relate, know that you are not alone. Every single writer on the planet has been in that same position and it still happens to the best of us. But as someone who does this full time, I knew I needed a different approach.
So, one day, as I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to handle this frustrating situation, I started thinking about how I handled writer’s block during my college years (when I was writing a ton of academic papers as an English major).
I thought back to those late nights at the library—tired, coffee in hand, staring at a blank screen. It wasn’t all that much different than what I was doing at that moment, except now I was also dealing with the demands of a house and kids and a business, and even less time to waste, so I knew I had to figure out how to get out of the creative rut I always found myself in. But then I remembered that back then, I never started writing on a computer. Instead, I’d start every assignment by mapping ideas via pen and paper FIRST so I could get an idea of the bigger picture.
Now, for reference, I went to college during a time where we all had laptops and access to wifi. My generation was already becoming jaded about the whole outdated pen and paper concept, but I remember struggling to think creatively with a laptop in front of me. I was also the weird kid who kept lots of journals, so maybe it was just a part of me. Either way, it served me well then.
I remembered how freeing that process felt: Being able to scribble and draw and brainstorm in a way that instantly made room for more creativity, connection, and freedom in my thought process. I could circle and draw lines between ideas that seemed to have a connecting thread, put giant stars next to really important and exciting revelations, cross out what no longer made sense, and color code and diagram new ideas.
I realized, as I sat there in my business office trying to make sense of a content project, that my issue wasn’t about me or the project; it was about how I was STARTING the project. And it all made sense, because I’ve come to believe that the screen is too limiting to be able to truly capture the circular process of our thinking, especially as we’re brainstorming various ways to approach a piece of creative content.
So after spending way too many hours staring at a blank screen waiting for ideas, I now start every West River project in an unlikely place: Sitting on the floor, with a large roll of paper and some pens, ready to map out my ideas. This is where I think through the bigger picture, identify the main topics and any subtopics. For instance, if I’m working on developing website copy for a client, I’ll identify all of the main menu pages and each subpage, and start mapping out how they’ll work together to tell a cohesive story. Having visually created the sitemap first and knowing the main themes of each page makes it so much easier when I finally sit down at the computer to write.
Utilizing this single approach has drastically altered my process and has helped me look forward to the initial stages of a project, which I honestly used to dread. Because now, it’s about creativity and thinking bigger, and in the end, I think that means you’ll end up with a better project, too.
So, next time you’re feeling stuck, close your computer and grab some paper and pens. Then pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit straight down on the floor and see what it feels like to approach a project in a new, more creative way.
Because I’d dare to say that your feeling stuck might not have anything to do with you, but rather where you happen to be sitting. So, close the computer and step away.
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