3 hard-won lessons on getting "unstuck"
👉 and a simple process for writing emails even when you're stuck
It’s been a major effort writing today’s email.
I know sometimes when you read newsletters it can feel like the writer just woke up, got out of bed, slid gracefully down the bannister to the office like Mary Poppins, effortlessly dashed off some words of wisdom, then retired to the pool to sip drinks and watch their net worth grow on autopilot.
That’s certainly not the case for me.
Some days the writing comes naturally. You have a topic in mind, plenty of stories to use, and the words just flow.
Those days are great, and the more experienced you get, the more of them you see.
But way more often than I’d like, I get stuck.
And today was one of those days.
Luckily, the other thing that comes with experience is hard-won lessons on how to get yourself unstuck.
And today, for the first time, I thought “why don’t I actually write down what I do to get unstuck - it might be helpful for people”.
So I did.
The first thing I’ve found is that scribbling things down on paper helps. I love tech. But somehow writing on paper is just that bit freer and allows you to explore ideas in a way that doesn’t happen so often if you type or even draw on an iPad.
I keep a stock of 6”x4” index cards on my desk for quick notes. But any paper will do of course. Here’s what the scribbles for this email started out like:
I think that combination of random scribbles + illegible scrawl is a winner.
The second tip is to follow a process. My rough process to force something decent out is:
Pick a topic to write about. That might be a natural continuation of my previous email (this email is something of a continuation from my last one about perfectionism and struggling to get started). It might be something I grab from a list I’ve previously made of my audience’s big goals, aspirations, problems and challenges. It might be something that’s just “in the air” at the moment, or a problem I’m facing myself that I know my readers will empathise with. There a lot of the latter in this email.
Think of the stories or other ways you could illustrate the topic. Do you have personal experience with this problem you could talk about? (Blimey yes, in this case). Have you worked on this with clients and can share their experience? Is there some 3rd party data you could use: public domain case studies, research etc? Or are there some weird connection you can make to illustrate the point in a fun way?
In this case I could have drawn on any of those sources. But I decided that using my own personal experience would be quicker than (for example) googling around to find research on the topic. And it would also be somewhat cathartic.
Write down the main messages you want to get across. This helps to gather your thoughts and get them into a sensible order before you start writing. It can also trigger new ideas. You can see the beginnings of my list on the card in the image above (I continued overlead).
Decide on the “angle” you’d like to take in the email. You can write about any topic in lots of different ways. Listicles and how-to guides are common approaches. But you can also write your email focused on one big new idea, share a controversial point of view, reveal a secret, draw an analogy, make predictions, share a case study, etc. I’ll write more about email angles in an upcoming newsletter.
In this case after flirting with doing a “big new idea” email about email angles, I ended up going with the listicle format (or technically a how-to embedded within a listicle) as I had a handful of points I wanted to make.
Draft up an initial subject line. Subject lines are important because they can boost your email open rate and they set the tone and expectations for what’s going to be in the email. But you can always fix them later after your first draft.
With a listicle, subject lines often fall naturally into the pattern of:
[n] [adjective implying value/newness] [tips/ideas/lessons] on [topic]
Or in this case 5 hard-won lessons on getting “unstuck”.
Next, write a “hook” - the initial few sentences that entice people taking a peek at the email to actually read it. There are lots of formats to use for hooks, but in essence they boil down to hinting at the value readers will get from the email while piquing their curiosity by implying it will be something they haven’t seen before. In this case I did that with a little story about struggling to write this email that I hope you empathised with :)
Next, write the main content of the email taking the style from your chosen angle. Since this is a listicle I made a list of my tips taken from my scribbled notes. If you were sharing a big new idea you might talk about the old ways of doing things first, then reveal your new alternative. If it was a case study you’d probably tell the story chronologically followed by the lessons learned. Each angle has a style that naturally works well for it and guides your writing.
Finally, add a call to action. What do you want people to do after reading your email. Is it to buy something from you? To share the email? To implement the tips you shared? Make your ask and you’re done.
Actually, you’re not done. Go back and tweak your subject line to make sure it reflects what you actually wrote. In this case I narrowed down to 3 tips rather than 5 tips. And read back your email to make sure it makes sense and is easy to read.
Now you’re done.
Will your writing flow effortlessly if you follow that process?
Obvs not. But it will at least trickle. You’ll get a good email written.
One final tip:
Get up for a (very) short walk if you get stuck in the middle of the email. Stand up, and wander round the house as you mentally compose what to say next. I usually end up drinking far too much coffee doing this as I’ll get up and push the buttons to get one ground and poured. But that little 2-minute break and the increased oxygen flow to the brain from walking is worth it.
Looking back I realise I’d have gone through a lot fewer painful mornings if I’d written down these tips much earlier and followed them more consistently.
But as my Mum wisely says, it is what it is. I have them now - and so do you.
Helpful? If so, please do share this email using one of the little buttons at the end.
Even better: if you have any tips on “getting unstuck” yourself, please do share them. Scroll down and type them in the comments box - no matter how big or small the tip or how obvious you think it might be, I bet it will help someone.