AH-HA! Break though creative block in 4 steps

lightbulbYou’ve just been handed an assignment to write a direct mail package for a new product your client is introducing. It’s an important launch. You’ve been asked to be fresh, dynamic, and creative.

So, you pour yourself a cup of steaming coffee, turn on your computer, and settle in to give birth to an epic campaign. However, when your fingers hit the keyboard … nothing happens.


You write a few words. Delete. Then write a few more. Nothing. You try again and again to piece together a complete sentence, but you begin to realize that you have no idea what to say. You have no ideas. You’re dry.

Now you start to sweat and find yourself glancing frantically at the clock every five minutes. You can feel that deadline creeping up on you. Your stomach turns and you begin to wonder why you ever took on this assignment. You wonder why you’re even in this business.

And still the clock is ticking ….

Sound familiar? It has happened to all of us in the creative business. Some call it creative block. Others call it a slump. But whatever the term, the result is the same: frustration, stress, missed deadlines, or poor quality work.

The problem here is more than a tight deadline. It’s our society’s concept of creativity. Generally, we think of creativity as that mysterious “AH-HA” experience, where an idea seems to leap magically into our head in a bright flash of inspiration. But this “AH-HA” feeling is just a synapse firing in our brain. It’s an electro-chemical event over which we have no control.

However, what we CAN control are the events that lead up to and follow that sudden spark. Creativity isn’t just a moment. It’s a process. And despite what you might think, the process isn’t disorganized at all. In fact, it follows definite steps that you can apply to your everyday work to help free your mind and unleash your creative powers.

The Creative Process

In general, the creative process includes these four steps:

  1. Search for new information.
  2. Transform that information into new ideas.
  3. Evaluate all the new ideas, keeping only the best.
  4. Act on the best ideas.

I’m certainly not suggesting that creativity must proceed in a straight line from step 1 to step 4. You’re likely to skip around a bit. But whenever you truly create, you WILL go through these four steps one way or the other.

I have found through experience that creative blocks occur when you try to skip steps and dive right into “AH-HA” without giving the rest of the process a chance to work. Usually, it’s when you skip the first step and don’t collect enough information. Yet skipping any step can force your creative train to jump the track.

Step 1: Search

When you begin any project where you must be creative, start by collecting all the information you can get. Don’t be selective, just scoop up everything in sight. Read, ask questions, explore, and let your curiosity roam free. You won’t use everything, but that’s okay. Even seemingly useless information can help you understand your overall task more fully.

The key here is to look at everything and focus on nothing. Get the big picture and leave the details for later. Don’t make any decisions. Don’t evaluate information at this point. Just shovel up every possible fact. Don’t even organize papers. Simply pile everything into a file folder or a box.

In addition to collecting raw data, look at similar creative efforts. Dive into your swipe file. Thumb through magazines related to your subject or read by your ideal prospect and look at the articles and ads. Glance at newspaper headlines and book titles for new words and phrases which could spark ideas.

Look everywhere and take notes like crazy.

Step 2: Transform

The next step is to turn this collected information into new ideas. Organize everything you’ve collected. Boil down what you have into the essential elements. Sort and categorize.

When you have everything in order, begin to brainstorm. Let your mind run free. Don’t worry about how ridiculous some of your ideas may seem. Shoot for quantity here. Write dozens of headline and teasers. Sketch layout after layout. List random words and phrases. Work as fast as you can. Write down everything. Try to generate as many ideas as possible, even if they seem silly or unworkable.

After a while, set everything aside and do something else. Take a walk. Go golfing. Nap. I know this is hard to do when a deadline looms over you like an angry cloud, yet it’s an important part of the process. The break will allow your brain to do a little sifting and organizing for you. You may get your best ideas when you least expect it — in the shower, sitting in traffic, or in your sleep.

Step 3: Evaluate

When you’re fresh, go over the ideas you’ve generated. Now is the time to play critic. Give thumbs up or down to each idea. List the pros and cons of each. Be merciless. Weed out everything that doesn’t make the grade and keep only the best of the best. If you don’t like anything, or if you think you can do better, go back to brainstorming for a while.

For a time, you might alternate between spitting out ideas and evaluating them. How long you spend on this depends on your deadline and your endurance. When the deadline gets close or when you stop generating any useful ideas, it’s time to move on.

Step 4: Act

Eventually, and perhaps painfully, you will have to choose a single idea. This can often be the most difficult part of any project, because you’re afraid you might miss the “big idea.” Your instincts will tell you to keep brainstorming, but this is where you have to listen to your intellect, not your gut. Take your chosen idea and run with it. If you’ve given the creative process a chance, it’s time to act.

In particular, you must avoid loosing your objectivity by mulling over the problem too long. Sometimes, too much thinking will cloud your judgment. Consider your work a kind of watercolor — too many brush stroke will only produce an brown, ugly mess. Knowing when to stop is one of your most important skills.

The next time you sit down to write a direct mail package, design an ad, plan a campaign, or begin any creative project, try this simple 4-step process. By using your natural creativity in an organized way, you will feed your mind and free yourself to think more creatively, be more productive, and meet those seemingly impossible deadlines.

Do you have a different process or trick you use to break through or avoid creative block and get those writing juices flowing?

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6 Responses to “AH-HA! Break though creative block in 4 steps”

  1. Cynthia Maniglia on November 19th, 2008 5:09 pm

    Two other things I like to do:

    Bounce off my last project:
    Anything from the last project that can apply here?
    A thought? A visual? A format? ANYTHING? Sometimes it’s all you need is a little seed like that and you’re like, hey – cosmic magic! This is meant to be. It’s as if a higher power is lining up your jobs to make it so.

    Start writing/drawing ANYTHING:
    No matter how bad or good. Just get something down to react to. A headline you use to get started may have ONE word that turns up in the final thing – no problem. At least you’re starting to walk. Then you can run with it.

    I had an old boss who referred to whatever knowledge you had or experience as you “well.” It takes time to fill the well. But you can always draw from. When the well is dry, go to your sample/swipe file and get working!

  2. Feedback Secrets on November 20th, 2008 12:38 pm

    I like your step-by-step process for bringing about creativity. I especially agree with you on the importance of consuming new information. The more I read, the more creative I get.

  3. Ted Grigg on November 22nd, 2008 1:38 pm

    Some writers attempt to shortcut the critical data gathering phase. They fail to review the failures and successes from previous client campaigns then wonder why the final product lacks impact.

    After working with some of the best copywriters in America, the ones who produce consistently winning direct response creative work understand the marketing behind what they sell.

    They may spend up to 75% of their time on a project just doing the research and learning about the product benefits.

    I think that great creativity for copywriting and even marketing comes out of the abundance of the information.

    Thanks for the practical advice.

  4. Hudson Atwell on November 25th, 2008 12:09 pm

    I’ve enjoyed your article, and feel like I know the heart of the wisdom in your write-up. (that is a loaded statement, and may seem abstract; my apologies)

    Often when i write in a journal i employ the same tactics, and when done with a creative session I then look at scribbled collection of sprouted ideas and can identify a theme and then prune and rearrange until I am left with something that shines.

  5. Karate Chopping Through a Creative Brick Wall | The Direct Marketing Voice on December 2nd, 2008 4:24 pm

    [...] that creativity isn’t something that just happens. You have to work at it. From a post titled, AH-HA! Break Through Creative Blocks in 4 Steps, found on the Direct Creative [...]

  6. Tombee on November 19th, 2010 10:52 am

    I don’t just keep a swipe file. I keep a scrap book of odd and interesting images I’ve come across, cut out and kept over the years.
    The random nature of the collection, and the many wonderful and inspiring – and quite frankly – bizarre pictures within its pages, is a great way to spark oddball ideas for ads and take you places you never would have gone.

    Plus it’s just a great way to give your brain a break and press reset – just like you suggest in step 2.

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