When You Can’t Get Started Writing

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me, holding an empty piece of paper, saying, “I have to write this letter and I don’t know how to begin.”

Whenever I sit down to write with someone, the first thing we do is talk. That helps the writer organize and focus on what he wants to say. So if you can’t get started writing, perhaps you can start by talking. When you can explain something clearly to another person, you’ve got the basis for writing it. If you happen to be all alone, that’s okay. Nobody will report you for talking to yourself.

Before we begin, I like to break the task into smaller steps – “doable doses,” as James Taylor calls them in one of his early songs. If writing doesn’t come easily to you, then thinking about the whole thing is too daunting. One little step is “doable.”

So what are the steps? Let’s talk about writing a business letter.

  1. Identify the purpose in your own mind. Are you explaining something? Asking for information? Arguing about something? What do you hope to achieve with this letter? As soon as you’ve identified your purpose, write it down. Then you’ll have something to come back to if you lose your focus.
  2. Let the reader know the purpose. Nobody likes to go through six paragraphs in order to find out what you’re talking about. Tell the reader right up front what you want, and then make your case.
  3. Set the context. There are always certain facts or statements on which the rest of the letter is based. You’ll have to use your judgment as to how much background you need.
  4. Know what you want to tell the reader. Once you’ve told the reader what he’s going to be reading about, then you can give him new information. What specific points of information are you going to include?
  5. Organize your points in logical order. You want information to flow smoothly from one point to the next. You’re building something when you write, and you want it to stand on a solid foundation. If information comes in random order, you’ll have your reader jumping back and forth trying to understand where you’re going. Nobody wants to work that hard.
  6. Before you close, repeat the purpose of the letter. If you’ve asked for something at the beginning, repeat the request. Leave the reader with the most important idea that puts a cap on the whole thing.
  7. Get rid of the mistakes. Review your grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. You want your reader to pay attention to what you’ve said. Mistakes are distracting. If you’ve got certain types of mistakes, you’re not going to be taken seriously. If you’re not able to eliminate all the mistakes without help, get help. If you find a small typo, for Heaven’s sake, don’t be too lazy to fix it. Never say, “Oh that’s okay, they won’t notice.” Yes They Will!
  8. Think about whether the letter is too long. Look for things you can cut without removing key elements. Have you included irrelevant information that doesn’t move you closer to achieving the purpose? Take it out. It may be a few words, a whole sentence, or even an entire paragraph. Be ruthless, but be sure to keep the important parts in.
  9. Watch out for that nasty computer! If you are working on a computer, it’s easy to overlook errors you create when you cut and paste. When you remove a few words, make sure that the part you keep still makes sense, and that it’s a correct sentence. Make sure that subjects and verbs still agree. Make sure you haven’t unintentionally cut words you need.
  10. Put it down. Have a drink of water. Come back and read it again. Sometimes you can get so close to a piece you’ve been working on that you can’t even see it anymore. You read it through, but your eyes skim over whole phrases because you’ve read them too many times. Before you proofread your letter for a final okay, walk away. A very good editor I know likes to read it backwards, sentence by sentence. That way, his brain is less likely to make assumptions about what it sees on the page. I’ve found some pretty embarrassing mistakes that way, myself.
  11. Reconfirm that you’ve done the job. Try to read the letter as though you were reading it for the first time. Does it make sense? Is anything missing? Is it easy to understand? Have you made your point? Be critical. It will help you achieve the desired result.

All this may seem like it’s going to take an awfully long time, but it doesn’t have to. Clarity of thought will speed the process to a great degree. So will practice. The more you write, the better you’re going to become.

72 Comments

  1. Great collection of tips. Some of them apply to coding as well.🙂

  2. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing. « Metcalfe’s Law and Social Networks […]

  3. Thanks Matt. I’m as low-tech as they come (try non-tech), so I had no idea my tips could apply to coding. It’s interesting to hear that.

  4. Great article Judy. I’ve got your site bookmarked now. Thanks for publishing such a nice reference piece.

  5. Thank you, Seanrox. I’m glad you found it helpful.

  6. A good list, I’m going to have to remember these when writing on my blog🙂

  7. Good stuff. I just wanted to mention how much I actually hate the whole ‘talking to yourself’ routine. It appears to be universally considered a good way of teaching foreigners the intricacies of pronunciation (I am a non-native speaker of English🙂 ), yet it gives the student a sense of being insane. We were expected to pronounce all the new words we studied at home, record them on tape and listen to them in order to identify our weaknesses.

    I attempted this one once, felt a bit too weird and dropped it. Dauntingly, my pronunciation has not suffered one bit.

  8. My passion for using the word ‘bit’ a bit too often has survived the formative years of English Language education though🙂

  9. Another tip, straight from the pages of On Writing Well, is to read what you’ve written out loud and take out anything that sounds awkward or sounds like something you wouldn’t normally say.

  10. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing « Writing English (tags: writing programming) […]

  11. Orlinator, In my business, I concern myself with the written word, not the spoken word. So when I say “talk to yourself” it doesn’t have to be out loud. The important thing is to go through the thinking process. When non-native English speakers write, it is often easy to tell that they’re using English as a second language. If you think of that as “writing with an accent” then you can understand why, for business purposes, it’s good to eliminate the accent in your writing when you’re trying to appeal to U.S. customers. I can say, after visiting your site, that there’s no accent in your writing. If you have an accent when you speak English, it probably only adds to your charm.

  12. Tony, Sounds like a good tip to me. But don’t tell that to Orlinator.

  13. Mokshore, Thanks for the link.

  14. If you can’t get started writing that business letter, a good approach is to tell yourself to write a badly written version of the letter. If necessary, tell yourself you’re not going to send this one, you’re only going to read through it for ideas. You’ll often find that your badly written attempt is not so bad after all, and only requires a little editing. And editing a flawed letter is much easier than writing a new one.

  15. Take doable doses

    On her blog Writing English, Judy Rose offers advice on what to do When You Can’t Get Started Writing, advice that’s in the Manage Your Writing spirit. My favorite paragraph from the posting:Before we begin, I like to break the

  16. Great list, I have to remember these when writing on my blog🙂


    Seduce any woman – http://www.jakpodrywac.info

  17. Judyrose, I am sure that you are right in your remarks about reading to oneslef, it’s just that this post evoked the harsh aroma of textbooks, dictionaries and tape recorders and I couldn’t help mentioning how much I hated this whole thing.

    Now, back to the subject. I work as a freelance translator every now and then and I have noticed that a lot of people like the idea of writing, say, a business letter in their native language and then translating it (or having somebody else translate it for them) into English. Now, I am no expert of course, but doesn’t this inevitably hurt the overall quality of the final product, that is, is there a sensible way of making a Bulgarian/Spanish/Japanese/you name it text look naturally English without amending its content?

    On the other hand, if a person can’t get himself/herself to write in English because of the constant fear of committing irrevocable errors that would somehow hurt his/her business, isn’t it better for him or her to compose a text in Bulgarian and then send it to a translations agency?

  18. “Doable?” Feasible.

  19. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing Some tips and ideas for getting started with writing. (tags: writing tips) […]

  20. Excellent post. You’ve described all there is to know about writing in simple, easy-to-follow terms. I hope thousands of authors have a look at it!

  21. Kenny, I have no problem with writing a rough draft (what you call a badly written letter) and then editing and improving it. Many of my steps talk about the kinds of questions you need to ask as you’re reading over what you’ve written. The purpose of that is to make it better. So basically, we agree.

  22. Manage Your Writing (Kenneth): Thanks for the link to my site. Your site looks very interesting indeed, and I intend to spend some time there soon.

  23. Moosic, thanks for your comment. There’s a small town in Pennsylvania called Moosic. Did you know that? I have some older cousins (all in their 80s now) who used to have a big fruit and vegetable market there, so I will always remember that name.

  24. Orlinator, When I work with clients who aren’t native English speakers, I don’t really know whether they’ve composed the original in their native language and then translated it into English, or started with the English version. It doesn’t matter to me. Once I get the English version, I’m going to “Americanize” it, so that it sounds natural to native English speakers. I am going to alter the text when I do this, but the content has to be decided by the writer. He is the one whose job it is to know what needs to be said. I’m just going to help him say it well.

    Translators may be able to convey the meaning of a translated piece, but may not give you something that is as effective in English as it was in the original language. I come in at the final stage. Some people call this process “post editing.”

    One of the things I say to prospective clients is that if I’m on the scene working with their employees, then there’s no need to be afraid of committing errors that may hurt the business. That’s what I’m there for, to protect the business from those errors. Employees can relax knowing there’s somebody to backstop them, and help them do a good job even if their English writing skills aren’t good.

  25. Monk and Monkey, Doable doesn’t mean feasible. If something is doable, you are able to do it. Do-able, if that makes it more clear.

    My point was that big tasks sometimes seem impossible. But if you break them down into a series of little tasks, then you feel like you can do them one at a time.

    (Probably more explanation than you needed.)

  26. Judy, that’s so great. I’ve been talking to myself to get my thoughts together before writing for years. I’m glad I’m not a total psycho🙂.

  27. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing « Writing English “So if you can’t get started writing, perhaps you can start by talking. When you can explain something clearly to another person, you’ve got the basis for writing it.” (tags: writing tip english reference) […]

  28. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing « Writing English Tagged as: article blog email english help howto productivity work writing blogging language […]

  29. Judy, I’m an employment counsellor and I would like to use copies of your article as suggestions for job seekers writing cover letters for job applications. Would this use of your article be acceptable, and if so how should I credit you. Incidentally, by now it goes without saying that I think this is a great item! – Bill

  30. Superb post, thank you.
    I fear I can’t write (leisurely) for toffee and am actually faced with wanting to add an entry to another blog I run and wondering how to get my points across.
    Finding your post was most opportune.

    Grateful regards,
    – Solo xxXxx

  31. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing « Writing English “Review your grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. You want your reader to pay attention to what you’ve said. Mistakes are distracting.” (tags: writing advice howto gtd productivity) […]

  32. To Akkam’s Razor, Leonid Mamchenkov, and Meri Williams: Thanks for creating a link to this post. I’m glad that some of the things I said struck a chord with you.

  33. Solo, That’s an interesting expression – “can’t write for toffee.” Is that British? It’s certainly a lot more dignified than some of the expressions I’ve heard for the same sentiment.

  34. Hi!
    Thank you for the nice tips! I think they would be very useful for even writing in Japanese so I have translated and would like your permission to post it on my blog. Is it OK with you?

  35. Judy,

    I confess I had to look up my own expression of ‘…for toffee’ after asking my partner if she used the phrase. She responded with gleeful amusement that her own version was probably more in line with what you alluded to.

    However, Wikipedia makes mention of it –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toffee

    As always, kind regards.

    – Solo xxXxx

  36. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing. I found this through the tag surfer. […]

  37. Okay, this site is bookmarked. Writing is one of my favorite pass-times! Glad I found you (one of the many who came here through Matt.) :o)

  38. Hi Jonathan. Yes, I have Matt to thank for many readers. Glad to have you as a visitor.

  39. […] Photo Matt経由で知ったWhen You Can’t Get Started Writing(書き始めることができないとき)がとても興味深かったので訳してみました。書いたご本人のJudyさんの許可をいただいたので掲載します。 読みやすい文章だなぁと思いながら訳してたんですが、それもそのはず、この方はプロの文章コンサルタントだということに後で気づきました。Judyさんは日本の貿易会社で25年以上働き、そこからこの(英語の)文章コンサルタントという仕事が生まれたそうです。許可をいただいたメールには常にクライアントを求めているとのことでしたので、英語の文章に関してプロの助言を得たいという方は、Judyさんに相談するといいでしょう(もちろん有料だと思いますが)。間違いなく有益な助言が得られるはずです。 […]

  40. […] I have started to edit my posts (it is not sufficient a lot of times), and started giving just a little more to it. […]

  41. […] When You Cant Get Started Writing – Found it’s hard to write something? The following tips would help you out! (via Photomatt) posted by Kemas Antonius on August 30, 2006 @ 6:59 am | Add comment […]

  42. […] When you can’t get started writing. Judy Rose recomienda dividir el acto de escribir en microtareas. […]

  43. Thanks for this post, Judy. I love writing, but sometimes just get caught up in the structure too much. You’ve just gained a reader in me, too.😀

    Oh, also…I came here through Matt, too.😉

  44. […] Writing English: When You Can’t Get Started Writing – “The more you write, the better you’re going to become.“ […]

  45. Hello, judyrose

    I have lately taken to write my blog in spanish again, as I’d been reading and writing in english for so long that I noticed I was losing a lot of practice. For a moment I was even worried I’d lose the ability to write in my native language without even being proficient in my second one.

    I love writing, and I share this with a lot of friends. I read this and thoroughly enjoyed and thought I could do a service, while practicing, translating it to spanish in my own site.

    I’ve started doing it and I think I’ll have it ready in a day or two but I wanted to request, first, permission from you to publish it in translated form and what, if any, references you’d like me to include. I was planning on linking the original article and the main writingenglish page.

    Thanks again, for the site and the article. The tips apply to any language, really.

  46. […] [2] True story. This essay started when someone sent me a link to this essay on When you can’t get started, which you might like, but I had trouble with. Halfway through I had so many ideas I jumped into a blank page and didn’t stop until I had a draft of much of this essay. Mind you, as a writer I know this subject well, and had done plenty of thinking on this topic beforehand. […]

  47. Flammable, Jeff, and Scott: Thanks for visiting, and taking the trouble to leave a few words, or linking to my site. I appreciate every reader.

  48. […] “When You Can’t Get Started Writing” by Writing English is a great introduction to the old writer’s block or modern day blogger’s block, when you sit down at the computer with motivation but no inspiration. I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me, holding an empty piece of paper, saying, “I have to write this letter and I don’t know how to begin.” […]

  49. […] In a previous post (When You Can’t Get Started Writing) I went through the process of sitting down to write a specific piece. I discussed things I do when I write, and when I help others to write. Today I’d like to share some tips that are more general, and have to do with your overall development as a writer. Some of the tips go together. Numbers 4, 5, and 6, for example, deal with having a great variety of words at your disposal and using them correctly. Numbers 7 and 8 have to do with clarity and simplicity. Some of the tips belong in both posts because they relate to writing habits. Even if you’ve read them before, they are worth repeating. […]

  50. Hi,
    loved this site🙂
    A big help for some one like me.

    -suniti

  51. […] Judy Rose has answered my long time question – How to start my writing? By organizing my points in a logical order and not only identifying the purpose in my own mind but also letting the readers to know the purpose. […]

  52. […] When You Can’t Get Started and How to Conquer Writer’s Block — The Ultimate Guide Writer’s block. The good news is every author in the world deals with it, and the web is full of useful tips for beating it. I’ve collected the best of them for you here, to help you whenever you’re battling the blank screen. […]

  53. i can’t writting clearly i need some help for that if some body try to help me for that i appreciate that thank’s

  54. Hello, Abdul. It is difficult to help from a long distance, but if you take a look at my post “Peek Into My Mailbox” I think you will find some suggestions that may work for you. The ideas were offered to others who wrote to me with questions similar to yours. Judy Rose

  55. thank you, it’s very useful for me…

  56. […] a previous post (When You Can’t Get Started Writing) I went through the process of sitting down to write a specific piece. I discussed things I do when […]

  57. Hi Judy,

    This site is almost like a god send for me!

    I have been trying a lot to get some magical fix that would improve my English, I have tried grammar books, even tried to start over all again- starting with my elementary books but either I find them too boring or don’t know what will I do after reading them.

    The points that you have clearly explained not only gave me confidence but, also motivated to write to you.

    I am sure that you will for yourself be able to see that in my writing here, that there are many errors that you have written in your blog.

    I have tried my level best to take care of the basic errors that I normally commit.

    Thanks again for your inspirational writing.

  58. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing: Check out this post that discusses getting started with writing. […]

  59. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing: Check out this post that discusses getting started with writing. […]

  60. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing: Check out this post that discusses getting started with writing. […]

  61. Hi Judy,

    The primary problems I have encountered in my life have to do with writing essays in school. I am attending a community college and I am still having a difficult time writing well-written essays and I don’t have a clue what website, book or any other kind of reference can help me. I need to become a good enough writer for the english class I will be taking in the fall. I am trying really hard to improve my writing this summer and I have no idea where to start. Please let me know if you have any advice for me that can be helpful to me this summer.

    Thanks,
    Ali

  62. […] Identify your purpose: Figure out why you’re writing, and start by explaining to the reader what your purpose is (ie: setting up an argument or asking for something). […]

  63. […] Identify your purpose: Figure out why you’re writing, and start by explaining to the reader what your purpose is (ie: setting up an argument or asking for something). […]

  64. I love your website that can help me to write better

  65. […] When You Can’t Get Started Writing: Check out this post that discusses getting started with writing. […]

  66. Well, i’m a neophyte in this world of writing. I do believe i can write, but mostly nobody likes it as the environment i’m living doesn’t know english. Moreover, i’ve tried it on face book, but i haven’t got enough likes! I’m not sure what to do and who to follow. I’m kinda lost. Help me plz.. Thanks! The above article was really useful..🙂

  67. Dear Madam,
    I really want to learning from you.. About how to writing and reading pracitice… Could you kindly give me soft idea…

    Many thanks in adivnce
    Tshering

  68. […] a previous post (When You Can’t Get Started Writing) I went through the process of sitting down to write a specific piece. I discussed things I do when […]

  69. Greetings, I love your article. This is a nice site and I wanted to post a note to let you know, good job! Thanks kim

    • Kim,
      Thanks so much for your kind words. ~Judy

  70. Started to write from now…🙂

  71. […] Identify your purpose: Figure out why you’re writing, and start by explaining to the reader what your purpose is (ie: setting up an argument or asking for something). […]


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