How to Break through Writer’s Block
By Jerry Weissman
When computer users turn on their machines, they click on the Microsoft Windows icon to start. When writers or presenters start to develop their stories, they don’t have the luxury of a device that will help them initiate the process. The proverbial blank page of writer’s block is anathema to both authors and presenters.
Pulitzer Prize writer John McPhee has some advice to break through the blockage. Mr. McPhee speaks with authority. He writes for the New Yorker magazine, teaches at Princeton, and has written 28 books, the latest, Silk Parachute. In an article for the Wall Street Journal’s “Word Craft” column titled, “Writing a Strong Lead Is Half the Battle,” Mr. McPhee recommended starting the creative process by crafting a strong opening paragraph or sentence. As he put it, this approach “can illuminate the problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole, to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure.” And he added, “You may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it.”
Fellow writer John Irving, the author of the bestselling The World According to Garp, takes the opposite approach. He says, “I always begin with a last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin.”
Mr. McPhee and Mr. Irving are referring to writing text. Readers of Presenting to Win and a prior blog know that, for presentations, I agree with Mr. Irving. Begin with the end in mind— ultimately, what you want your audience to do—and then work forward to analyze what they want, brainstorm the ideas you’ll offer to persuade them, and structure those ideas logically. This approach leaves the development of a strong start or lead (also known as an Opening Gambit or elevator pitch) to the end of the process. Bake the cake first and then place the cherry on top.
But whether you set out to develop content for a presentation or text, you are tapping into the creative process which, by nature and by definition, is open, unstructured, and free-flowing. Creating content is very much like thinking outside the box; you can explore your ideas front-to-back, back-to-front, top-down, bottom-up, or best of all, inside-out. When you set out to create your presentation, you can heed Mr. Irving and start at the end, or heed Mr. McPhee and start at the beginning. Many presenters, who devote a great deal of energy to their all-important elevator pitch, start at the front end and “plunge right on and out the other side.” In the process, they clarify the rest of their presentations.
Now you now have two choices: place your cherry at the beginning or the end.