25th February 2019
How to overcome copywriter’s block when the clock is ticking
As I write this, I'm struggling with copywriter's block. At home this wouldn't be a problem - I'd go for a walk, browse social media for a while, and read a chapter of a book to get my brain working again. But as many of you know, copywriting in a 9-5 environment doesn't afford us those kinds of luxuries, especially when deadlines are looming.
Stuck on a blank page, and starting to panic? I've got your back. Here's my guide to overcoming copywriter's block when the clock is ticking.
I am referring primarily to web copy and not ad copy, in this blog, as this field is where these tips are most relevant. As copywriters, we can sometimes fall into the trap of becoming too involved with the topic at hand, whether we realise it or not. It’s important to remember that your job is not to become an expert on a topic.
Your skills lie in the communication of a message. Struggling to communicate? Look for examples of excellent communication. Instead of focusing on the content (like the reader will), focus on the craft.
When I’m writing for a particularly uninspiring topic, or (alternatively) one that I am overly interested in, I try to look at my writing in a structural, almost clinical way. To inform my decisions, I’ll hop over to a relevant blog or news site and find an example of the copy I want to emulate.
It helps to find copy focusing on a different topic. This way, you’re only analysing the way it’s written, and not what it’s written about.
Though this tip is relevant for real-time copy struggles and will help when you’re against the clock, I want to stress the importance of reading analytically as often as possible. There’s a reason good readers tend to be better writers – the more you study good examples of writing, the more likely you are to embody these examples in your own work.
Get rid of distractions
Once you’ve established the structure of your copy, get rid of distractions. If you work in an office (albeit small) as I do, you know the temptation to join in with the general chit-chat can greatly impact productivity.
But we copywriters are stereotyped as antisocial – headphones in, coffee black, sentences short and clipped – for a reason… we’re busy! Don’t be afraid to make space for yourself, and commit to getting work done.
Once you’re “in the zone”, so to speak (horribly outdated buzzwords, I know, but they do the job), your focus is paramount to the success of your work. After all, you’re recovering from a bout of copywriter’s block!
And, for those people who insist you can write effectively and take part in conversation simultaneously – ask them to send a text or an email whilst you chat incessantly in their ear. Nine times out of ten, they’ll have started typing what you were saying.
At this point, feel free to get out your most derisive “I told you so,” face, or its most appropriate professional equivalent.
Alternatively: throw on some tunes!
If, like me, you find that you work better with some background noise (not including the chatter from next door), you might want to throw on some music.
For a long time, I couldn’t listen to music and write at the same time, but the radio in the office was so distracting I had to put something, anything, on.
I started listening to music without words at first. Piano music, liquid drum and bass; that sort of thing. As time went on, words began to creep back into my playlists. Now, I’m able to write and hum along at the same time without it affecting the quality of my work.
I’ve linked a playlist below that takes you through my musical choices. If you’re struggling to write and need some background music, I recommend that you play it from the top, in order. Good luck!
Give yourself a time limit for research
Researching a topic you don’t know much about is often time-consuming and can contribute towards writer’s block. I’ve found that giving myself a time limit for research means – as I mentioned in my first point – that I focus on the structure of the piece rather than my understanding of the topic.
Now, I’m not advocating that you go out there and start researching ineffectively. That’s going to produce some pretty shoddy copy, and we both know it.
However, putting a time limit on your research means you’ll only look for the most relevant information, and you won’t (like I am so prone to doing) end up in a Wikipedia rabbit hole wondering why exactly the Podomachla usambarae moth first migrated to Tanzania.
Limit your research time, and fact-check as you go. Only cite the most credible sources. Treat research almost like an academic paper – if you can’t find it cited somewhere else, or if there’s no credible source for it, don’t use it!
Split the topic into subsections
To overcome the overwhelming paralysis of staring at a blank page, split the topic into subsections. Start writing headings as you research – it doesn’t matter if they change later, but they’ll keep you on track and make it easier to jump around the document if you’re starting to lose motion on a particular section.
I find that splitting a topic up into questions that I plan to delete later is insanely helpful. Your brain’s natural response to a question is to answer it, so positioning these questions towards yourself can help you structure your copy in a more intuitive way.
Keep sections short and snappy. We’re writing web copy, not an academic paper. Nobody wants to see chunk after chunk of text. If you’re struggling, use a wordcounter to keep you on track.
Plan in time to edit
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all: plan in time to edit. I had a nasty surprise earlier this year when I realised I wasn’t spending nearly enough time proofing and editing my work. It came as a knock to my ego, but a welcome reminder that we should never get too comfortable.
Try to plan is as much time for editing as you do for writing. If you’re on a tight deadline, use the 3:4:3 ratio – 30% of your time for research, 40% of your time for writing, and 30% of your time for editing.
Not only will this improve the quality of your writing, but it’ll make you a better copyeditor. And let’s be real, that’s primarily what we’re asked to do.
If I managed to overcome copywriter’s block and get this blog written before my deadline, so can you. Take my advice on board, and get cracking. Good luck!