There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page when you know you need to create content — whether that’s an article, a social post, a newsletter, the first draft of your ebook or whitepaper, or anything else that requires the written word.
When you sit down to write and the words just won’t come — or you don’t sit down to write at all and procrastinate on what you need to create because you have no idea what to write about — you may be tempted to shrug it off as a shame and move on.
After all, there’s nothing you can do about writer’s block. Right?
Not so fast.
Writer’s Block Isn’t an Excuse Not to Write
For one, I’d argue that writer’s block isn’t real. Or, more accurately, it exists but it’s not a real reason to not write.
Writer’s block is a form of what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance,” and the ability to do the work and write in the face of such resistance is what separates an amateur from a professional.
In other words, one big thing that separates someone who is a successful creator and someone who is not is that when faced with writer’s block, the successful creator writes anyway (or records a video anyway, or does their podcast episode anyway, etc).
Even if it’s bad, even if they hate the process, even if there are a million reasons to walk away and do anything but write.
Meanwhile, the unsuccessful amateur gives into the temptation to avoid the work and passes off the responsibility in the process, blaming writer’s block for their inability to produce.
If you want to create content in any capacity — whether it’s to communicate with your clients, market your business, or just for your own personal passion projects, the best thing you can do is banish this idea of “writer’s block.”
The second best thing to do is recognize that doesn’t mean you won’t face periods of time — hours, days, months even — where you don’t feel like writing. Or you don’t have any good ideas, or you’re not sure how to get what’s in your head into tangible words.
There may be periods where you simply don’t know what to write at all.
When that happens, you’ll (hopefully) now know that you can’t blame writer’s block. So what should you do instead? Try one of these things anytime you need to create content, but just aren’t sure what to write.
1. Ask Your Audience
This tip will help you generate ideas easily and help you avoid a big content marketing mistake, which is to write about what interests you rather than what interests your audience.
Instead of trying to guess at what they may want or need, ask them — or start keeping track of the questions they most frequently ask you.
Write down the questions you get from clients. Make note of things people ask when they email or call you. Those questions can serve as great writing prompts when you don’t know what to write.
You can also proactively reach out and ask people what they want to read about or know.
Directly email or talk to a friend or member of your network and ask if there’s something specific that would make for valuable reading, viewing, or listening for them (just make sure any individuals you ask are representative of the group you want to reach with your content).
Or poll your audience — send an email campaign to your list, post on social media, or leave a comment in a community or forum you participate in. Here are a few ways to structure your calls for ideas:
The Broad Ask: If you have a big audience + a general topic, ask an open-ended question about what they’d like to learn from you on that topic. Take this examples from Erin Lowry of Broke Millennial on Twitter, who frequently pings her audience to get clear on content that aligns with what they need:
Topics like self-employed/hustling, relationships, and preparing for retirement have all been suggested for a third book. What say you? Where would you like to see the Broke Millennial series head after investing?
— Broke Millennial (@BrokeMillennial) May 17, 2018
The Focused Ask: The problem with asking people a very broad, open-ended question where the answer could be anything is that people may not respond. When there are too many possible directions to take an answer, people may get overwhelmed or overthink it — and not say anything at all.
If you find that to be the case in your situation, you might want to try to narrow your focus to get people thinking on something specific. To do this, you need to have a sense of what your audience’s pain points may be. Otherwise, you may find yourself asking about specifics that your readership doesn’t actually care about in the first place.
Let’s look at another example from Erin, where she specifically asks about investing terms or phrases that her audience didn’t understand:
Working on the essential vocabulary section of my investing book begs the question to you all: which investing terms confuse (or confused) you and which do you think are mandatory for rookies to know?
— Broke Millennial (@BrokeMillennial) March 2, 2018
You can also engage with your audience to learn more about what kind of content they’d find relevant, useful, and valuable via email or in communities (like groups on Facebook, forums on Reddit, etc).
2. Generate Countless Keywords to Spark Ideas
Even if you don’t know specifically what to write, or do your next podcast or video on, you know what topics you focus on in general. For example, a financial advisor working with clients in their 20s, 30s, or 40s may be interested in talking about:
- starting a business
- paying off student loans
- paying down debt while investing
- saving for college
- starting a family
- buying a house
- relocating for work
- changing careers
- going back to school
- investing in real estate
…and a whole lot more.
This list, or one similar to it that you can make yourself? That’s a list of potential keywords to use — and topic ideas to take and run with.
But this list needs a little work before it’s more useful (both in terms of helping you know what to write or what to focus on for your next piece of content, and in being more valuable, long-tail keywords that drive SEO benefits).
Say your niche includes clients that want to learn more about investing in real estate. Let’s take that phrase — “investing in real estate” — and see if we can’t make it more specific or get more creative with it.
To do so, we can use the crudely-named but very useful Keyword Shitter tool. (Yes, that is really what it’s called.) Head to the site, paste your keyword into the blank field, then hit the “Shit Keywords!” button.
The tool will immediately start generating hundreds of keywords. For “investing in real estate,” I got over 100 in about 5 seconds. I usually stop the job at this point, because I don’t necessarily need huge volume — just one or two suggestions that sparks a creative idea.
Here are some suggestions the tool gave me that caught my eye:
- investing in real estate a good idea
- investing in real estate for retirement income
- investing in real estate for the first time
- investing in real estate how to
- investing in real estate in retirement
- investing in real estate in [insert specific location here]
These all seem like they could easily be turned into lengthy, in-depth, interesting articles relevant to your specific niche. They’re also all long-tail keywords that will likely make it easier to rank in a Google search result since they should have less competition than the general keyword, “investing in real estate.”
The keyword “investing in real estate a good idea” could become the article, Is Investing in Real Estate a Good Idea? Here’s How to Tell that could outline the pros and cons, when it makes sense to invest in real estate, potential pitfalls to be aware of, what factors make a real estate investment successful, how to vet a property as a good investment, and tips on how to fit a real estate investment into your overall financial plan.
This tactic can help provide ideas on what to write — but before you write those articles based on what the keyword generator provided, you may want want to validate potential keywords if you’re concerned about SEO.
You can do that in Google’s Keyword Planner, and explain how in my SEO course for advisors if you want to learn more.
3. Tap into the News
When you don’t know what to write or feel short on ideas, here’s a quick hack to get your thoughts flowing: head to Google News and type in a phrase relevant to your service, profession, or niche.
When you do, Google will return results from news media sources, like recent articles and breaking news around current events.
Let’s use a broad example and type in “personal finance.” Here are some of the first results I saw when I did this today:
The point is not to copy what you see here, but to find inspiration in some of these results. Check out some of the articles with the most intriguing headlines. Read them, and then consider:
- Do you have an opposing point of view? Respond and write from another perspective.
- Did the original piece miss something important about the topic? Write your own article that goes into great detail about what’s missing from other sources.
- Did an article address a topic for a specific audience? If so, could you address the same topic — but as it relates to your audience and what they care about?
Sometimes, simply looking at the headlines or reading an article or two can spark a fresh idea, too.
4. Go for a Walk
So far, we’ve talked about tactics for figuring out what to write that all involve more active research or thinking. But sometimes, doing more isn’t the answer.
Stopping what you’re doing and completely changing up the pace and setting is what you need to do.
In fact, going for a walk outside or heading to the gym to workout is my usual go-to the moment I realize I’m getting stuck or I’m short on ideas. There’s something about movement that can really do wonders for your mental state and energy (and that effect seems to be magnified when you can move outdoors).
5. Engage with Off-Topic Content
True creativity seems to be the process of collecting a lot of diverse ideas, mixing them all up in your mind, and then turning out something original or something where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
To engage in that process, you need to balance how much content you try to create and refuel your creative energy from time to time. In other words, you not only need to create but you have to consume.
Great writers are voracious readers. People who excel with video watch a lot of TV, film, and YouTube content.
Not only do creatives balance their creation with consumption, but they also look far outside their own fields when they need fresh ideas.
Try tuning into a new podcast that’s completely irrelevant to your business. Pick up an unusual book; if you normally grab a non-fiction business book then reach for a fictional story instead. If you read nothing but financial media, reach for a science journal or fitness magazine instead.
Consume content that has nothing to do with your own work… and then give your brain some time and space to check out all the different pieces and points you collected through that process.
You might just find a philosophical think-piece on whether or not luck is subjective inspires something like an idea about the subjectivity of financial goals and how the only one right answer in financial planning is “it depends.” (Feel free to run with that and email me if you publish it; I’d be interested in reading an article like that!)
The Best Thing to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write? Just Write Anyway
These ideas and similar strategies (have conversations with new people, for example, could be a take on “consume a variety of content) can help you build the creative momentum you need to make fresh content.
But at the end of the day, what content creation comes down to is this: you either create or you don’t.
It might sound harsh, but that’s the reality of creative work. And sometimes, when you don’t know what to write no amount of brainstorming or strategizing to come up with new ideas will bear fruit.
During those times, the only solution is to realize you have no clue what you’re doing… and then do it anyway. I’m not just preaching this; I do it myself.
I have a very ugly, messy notebook that I keep for these very occasions. When I feel utterly, completely stuck and nothing else is working, I pull out that notebook and I just start writing in it by hand — even if I’m literally writing, “I have no idea what to write. I am devoid of ideas. Nothing sounds good and I am just totally blank blank blank.”
But I keep writing. I don’t let my my hand stop moving across the page. And eventually, whether it’s after a minute or after half an hour of this painful exercise, an idea will show up and I’ll have something to work with.
Most people think the ideas show up first, then they do the work. If you subscribe to this, you’ve got it entirely backward.
You have to show up first. And then, just maybe, a good idea will meet you halfway.
Again, this is what separates professionals who succeed from amateurs who don’t: the successful professional sits down to do the work no matter what, with no excuses — and even with no ideas.