Chipping Away Writer's Block


I had a conversation a few weeks ago with my project manager, Bernhard Seefeld, about strategies to combat writer's block. At the time, I had been taking longer than I would like to write documentation. I asked him how he deals with writer's block. He gave me some great advice, which I thought was worthy of sharing.

Can't start a draft? Send an email

A crafty use of psychology: sitting down and writing can seem like such a drag. Can't you just briefly explain the idea to someone? Why not pretend to (or actually) send someone an email where you talk about what you're going to write.

Viola! You have your first draft.

Draw a diagram, convert it to text

Sometimes, the linear nature of writing gets in the way of the expression of your ideas.

People will read your idea from start to finish, but that often is not the way you think of an idea.

Drawings become your friend: with them, you're not bound to write any portion that is uninspired or follow any order. Berni finds that they help communicate the relationships between ideas.

You reach a full expression of a though faster with diagram than paragraphs.

Once you've mapped your concept into two dimensions, you'll have an easier time describing it in text.

Modular Storytelling

Since we had been talking about documentation, Berni introduced me to the idea of SlideDocs.

TL;DR: Instead of traditional documents, the medium is slides; Instead of a presentation, they are used as reference material.

There are a few aspects of SlideDocs that strike me as valuable. First, I like how each slide covers only one concept. This is helpful both in the construction and consumption of the deck. The slide is organized into a format of increasing levels of depth: the title contains the core idea, diagrams another layer, and small print provides full information. Then, concepts can be interchanged within the deck in a modular fashion.

The second thing that I really like about slide decks is that the format easily flows into a narrative. Since it relies on the more familiar form factor of a presentation, the writer is more likely to tell a story. Though ultimately, everything gets read, the creator is more likely to "speak" to the reader.

Even if you're not writing documentation, there's valuable lessons to gleam from their model. If you organize ideas into bite-sizes units, writing becomes an exercise of arrangement and filling in the details (see slide 44 onward). Further, writing becomes easier if you realize that you are not writing in a vacuum, but communicating to somebody, down the line.