A Cure for Writer’s Block

Ever get stuck writing a technical report or a presentation about a project? I’ve got a process that can help. It’s not the only way, but it’s my way. I’ll list, then elucidate. Here’s the list:

  1. Work a little, write a little. Repeat.
  2. Relevance is everything.
  3. Be direct. Do more research if you have to.
  4. Get feedback. Lots of feedback. This is how to stay unstuck.
  5. Don’t edit as you write. Create without judgment. Edit later.
  6. Edit relentlessly.
  7. Step away for a minute.
  8. Remember the cost.

And now the elucidating:

  1. Don’t wait until the end of your project to begin writing about it. Write while you’re working, so that your writing iterates with your project. Your writing will likely lead you to ask questions that improve the quality and direction of the project itself.
  2. Relevance is the most important thing about any writing. Without relevance, nothing else matters. The three most important tools for staying relevant are feedback, feedback, and feedback. Keep your audience informed about what you’re writing and what you’re planning to write. Negotiate your table of contents with them.
  3. Be direct. Don’t use weasel words. Write strong. If you can’t, because the facts you’re writing about aren’t strong, then you’ve identified that the project needs strengthening. This is one of the ways that “work a little, write a little” helps make your project better.
  4. I’ve recently written three articles about getting unstuck (1, 2, 3). The theme of all three: feedback. Discuss your plans and intermediate results with your audience, or with your colleagues, or even aloud with yourself. Sometimes, even simulating feedback within your own mind is enough.
  5. Separate your editor self from your writer self. When you’re inspired, write. Let the inspiration take you wherever it wants to go. Save the refining and formatting and optimizing and cutting and rearranging for when you edit. Inspiration can be scarce, so don’t waste it. When you’re inspired, write; when you’re not, edit.
  6. When you do edit, edit mercilessly. Destroy any pixel that doesn’t justify its existence. I know you were in love with that one thing you wrote, but if it’s not relevant and direct, then cut it. Save your cuts to a separate “scraps” file if it makes you feel better.
  7. If you get stuck on a problem—particularly a complexity problem—then step away for a minute. Even just a quick trip to the restroom might help clarify your perspective and get you moving again. If you’re really stuck, go outside and walk a mile or two. You may find your brain is more productive when you leave it alone for a bit.
  8. It’s easy to lose yourself in wanting to make a perfect document. But remember, writing takes time, and someone has to pay for that time. (If it looks like nobody’s paying for your time, then you are paying for it.) If you’re a person who charges for your time, then you need to be clear that the bigger and more detailed the document, the more it’s going to cost to write it.

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