3 Tricks to Overcome Writer's Block
Often we struggle to write docs, especially when it’s something that isn’t explicitly part of our job or one of our passions. Like a chore, though, we know it still needs to be done. Then “writer’s block” hits, where we all struggle to get anything on a page in the first place.
Let’s start by throwing away the least helpful advice people give: “Just sit down and write.” That’s like saying “Oh, you should exercise more” or “You should eat better”—it’s a sentiment, not a strategy.
So let’s talk strategy. I have three ways that could help you kickstart your writing.
Write in bullets, not full thoughts
When you’re writing, you’re often doing many things at once:
- Deciding what needs to be conveyed
- Deciding how to convey it
- Deciding the order of things to convey
Sometimes your brain deadlocks—not in what material needs to be conveyed, but in how to convey it or the order in which to write.
Try reducing the amount of things you’re simultaneously doing by just writing whatever bullet point notes come to mind. Write down what you think people need to know, in a way meant to be quick and not necessarily organized.
Here’s a sample from this post, before I started writing it in earnest:
- “I’ll write it at some point.” The dirty truth is “some point” never happens. It needs to be deliberate.
- Like “I should exercise”
- Have a simple plan
- 90 minutes x 3 times a week
- That includes just staring at a screen, if that’s all you can do
- Or writing random bullet points
When you feel enough momentum to write fuller statements and sections, stop the bullet points and get to that writing! Don’t feel you need to finish your bullets—they’re serving their purpose if they’re getting you to produce content. Similarly, you don’t need to write content based on what you captured in your bullets. You’ll see I didn’t in this post.
On particularly tough pieces (for me, always writing my own performance reviews), I’ll end up doing this multiple times, always going back to bullets when I get stuck.
Skip to the “next” thing
And sometimes the bullet points technique doesn’t work! If you’re looking at a blank page for what feels like an eternity—maybe an hour, maybe days or weeks—stop trying to write whatever you’re writing. Just move on. Figure out the next thing you plan to write, and skip to that.
When I skip something in the same document, like deciding that I just can’t write a section at the moment, I’ll make a comment in the doc like:
[TODO: BRIEF EXPLANATION OF CONCEPT HERE]
Or if I feel the need to vent a little in a draft:
[TODO: I HATE WRITING THIS API CODE SAMPLE, BUT I CAN'T ESCAPE REALITY]
Just make sure you mark your skips in a way that keeps you from unintentionally publishing them, or sharing them with too wide an audience!
If I’m skipping one doc and moving to another one, I’ll make a similar comment at wherever I paused in that doc:
[TODO: PAUSED HERE, MY BRAIN IS JUST OUT OF JUICE FOR WRITING OPERATING SYSTEM INSTRUCTIONS]
I usually get back to the part I skipped after building up some momentum and getting productive brain chemistry in order. But sometimes, I discover that the reason I struggled to write the piece is it wasn’t actually the right information or topic for my audience. By moving to something else, I stopped obsessing over the inability to write something I felt I should have been able to write, and examined it for whether it was genuinely useful.
Steal from Pomodoro
For those not familiar, Pomodoro is a productivity method where you break work into 25-minute increments, followed by 5-minute breaks. There’s a little more to it, but that’s the gist.
Pomodoro doesn’t really work well for my mindset as an everyday tool, but when I’m struggling to write or do some other thought-intensive task, I try doing three pomodoros in a row. Personally, 90 minutes is about all the time I can handle trying something mentally exhausting before I need a more substantial break or shift in focus.
Here’s an important part: time spent just staring at your screen and not writing anything counts as time in your pomodoro. If that’s where your brain is with the writing, use the pomodoro method to sit with that feeling rather than give into a desire for distraction.
An analogy from my physical therapy sessions: I have some muscles in my back that love to seize up. One of my specialists had me use a tool to reach around and press hard into those muscles. At first, the muscle groups resisted, but after a couple of minutes of focused pressure, they gave in and started to relax and work with me. Sometimes my brain is like that as well, if I stare at a page long enough and don’t allow myself a distraction.
And of course, you can use this time management technique in conjunction with the other tips to try to get your brain out of a deadlock.
Putting this into practice
You don’t have to wait until you’re stuck to integrate tips like these. In fact, they’re easier to remember if you do them often—though not necessarily all the time. Can you find three times this week you could remind yourself to try these techniques?
If any of these work for you, or you have some other tried-and-true ways you handle the struggle, feel free to reach out through the
#blog-comments channel in our Slack workspace!
Image credits: Mug photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash.
Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)