How to beat technical writer’s block

I gave a talk on object-oriented programming with WordPress at WordCamp US 2019. This is the companion article that I wrote for it. If you’re just looking for the slides, click here.

A lot of us see their developer peers (especially this handsome individual) write wonderful technical articles. They’re sharing their expertise with their community and we wonder, “Maybe I should do the same?” After all, teaching is a wonderful learning tool.

So there’s the obvious question of where should you write your content? You can start your own WordPress blog or write on an existing platform like Medium. You could also write guest posts for existing publications.

But the larger struggle is finding out what to write about. Writer’s block is a well known problem both for new and experienced writers. You’re stuck staring at a white page because you’re not sure what to write about.

And, as you stare at that white page, you just end up more and more frustrated. You start to question whether you should be writing in the first place. But a lot of writers end up overcoming writer’s block after a while. It’s not something that has to define you.

Not going to focus on your goals with writing

Before we begin, let’s go over what we won’t cover in this article. It’s what your goals for your writing might be or how to achieve them. These goals are often very personal. And writer’s block is a phenomenon that’ll happen regardless of what these goals might be.

So instead, the purpose of this article is to offer suggestions to help you get over of your writer’s block. You might not like or want to use every suggestion that we’ll go over. That’s fine.

You might also find that some of them are a better fit for your writing goals. That’s excellent! You should focus on those first.

But, at the end of the day, these are still only suggestions. There’s no guarantee that they’ll help you achieve your writing goals. So that’s something that you should keep in mind as you read them.

“What am I going to write about?”

Without a doubt, the most debilitating about writer’s block is not knowing what to write about. But the truth is that there are a lot of sources of material for technical writing. We just don’t think about them because we don’t see them as such.

A problem that you faced

The most overlooked source of material for technical writing is often right under our noses. It’s the problems that we’re working on right now. Every day, we solve problems that we couldn’t find easy solutions to on Google or Stack Overflow.

These problems and their solutions are often a goldmine for ideas. You might think that you’re the only one struggling with these problems. But that’s often not the case.

There’s a good chance that there are other developers combing the internet for information on them. And, like you, they were hoping someone had written something about them already. So why not make it you!?

On top of that, it’s often easier to write about a problem that you worked on recently. Everything is still fresh in your mind. And you’re able to empathize with other people struggling with it in a way that’s harder to do if you write about it later.

Something you’re working on

In a similar vein as a problem you’ve faced, you might also have worked on some cool things recently. A lot of us have side projects that we like to work on when we’re not working. Those are always great things to write about.

In fact, there are a lot of different things that you can talk about. The most obvious one is that you can write about the thing that you built. We’ve all seen these posts where someone talks about a cool weekend project that they wanted to share with others.

But there are a lot more things to talk about than just what you built. You can talk about a new technology that you tried out. Or a new concept that you attempted to use.

These are also great sources of inspiration. We don’t always have the opportunity to try new things at work. So your experience trying to use a new technology or concept can be enlightening to someone who’s looking into them as well.

Postmortems

Another cool thing that you can write about when working with a new technology or concept is a postmortem. This is often very interesting to other developers. We want to hear about the real-world use of a concept or technology.

There’s definitely a time where you want to hear about something that you tried out for fun. But a postmortem goes way beyond that. You’ve actually done serious work putting things into practice.

You can talk about what went well and what didn’t. You can mention whether you’d use that concept or technology again in another project. This information is often quite valuable to anyone doing the work of evaluating things for a project.

This is especially true for new technologies. We’re often locked into using a specific technology once a project is underway. Post-mortems can prevent us from making the wrong technological choice and lock us into it.

Answer questions

Another great source for technical writing (and a lot of content marketing in general) is answering questions. People are always struggling with something and asking questions. You can just find a question that really sparks your interest and write about it.

This is how I even found the inspiration to write my first WordPress article! Nathaniel asked a question on the single responsibility principle on Stack Overflow. I just went ahead and answered it with an article instead of just writing an answer on Stack Overflow.

So, besides Stack Overflow, where can you go to find questions to answer? Well, there are a lot of places where people go to ask questions both online and offline. Online, you have the common staples such as Reddit, Facebook, Slack teams and so on. Offline, you have meetups, conferences and other technical events.

Things you wish people knew more about

This next suggestion is the main reason why I started writing. I really wanted to teach more advanced computer science concepts to WordPress developers. This is often where I fall back when I’m not too sure what to write about.

You don’t have to talk about computer science concepts if that doesn’t interest you. I’ve also written on other technical topics that not a lot of people write about. For example, I wrote about the command-line interface and regular expressions. (I even wrote about PHP strings of all topics!)

The point was more that I felt that these topics were worth knowing. But nobody wrote about them because they’re not a hot topic du jour. In fact, they’re kinda old and boring. (I mean who writes about strings!)

At the same time, whatever material that others had written on them wasn’t that beginner-friendly. They hadn’t written about them in a way that made them approachable to developers without a computer science background. But that’s important because the fact is that, nowadays, a lot of developers are self-taught.

This is why I also like reframing this idea of things that you wish people knew about in terms of my past self. You can ask yourself, “What are things that I wish my past self could have read? What articles would have made my journey as a programmer easier?”

This definitely played in my decision to write about the command-line interface and regular expressions. Both were programming topics that I found arcane and terrifying. I always wished there’d been an article out there to help make both these topics easier to understand and less scary.

Experimenting with your writing process

Looking at different sources of inspiration is an obvious way to fight writer’s block. But it’s not the only thing that you can look at! You can also look at your overall writing process.

Developing a regular writing habit

This seems like an obvious thing to say, but it’s often overlooked. You shouldn’t just write when the “inspiration hits you”. Inspiration is a pretty fickle thing and you might wait a long time for it to hit you. (Or it might hit you at the wrong time!)

That’s why it’s often recommended that you don’t wait until you have the inspiration to write. Instead, you should try to write every day if you can. There are a few reasons why this can be beneficial.

First of all, you don’t have to write something that you’ll publish. It’s really about the habit and getting used to the idea of writing something. The more often you write, the more comfortable you’ll get the idea of just putting something down even if you don’t think it’s great.

And that’s often the problem with writer’s block. We often feel that what we write isn’t that great. So we just get frustrated and stop writing. But you should really keep writing anyways.

This is especially true if you’re trying to write a hit of some sort. Whether it’s an article that gets shared a lot or just resonates well with your audience. It’s hard to predict that.

This applies even to prolific writers. The odds of knowing when something you write will be a hit is pretty low. But if you’re writing on a regular schedule, you can ensure that you at least have better odds of that happening.

It doesn’t matter how much you write

One of the problems with writing is that we feel that we have to write a lot every time we try to write. That can be really stressful when you’re dealing with writer’s block. But really it doesn’t matter how much you write.

In fact, you should experiment with different ways to ways to frame your writing habit. Some people block a specific period each day to write. Others (like Stephen King) set a specific number of words to write per day. (He does 2,000 words per day.)

To give you an idea of how this played out for me, I started my writing habit trying to write 1,000 words a day. That’s because I’d read about how much it’d helped Nathan Barry to do it. But it just didn’t work for me.

A lot of what I write requires a lot of research and experimentation as I’m writing it. So I’d sit for hours and I couldn’t even come close to writing 1,000 words. And that was demoralizing at the time.

That said, I liked the idea of writing a specific amount of words every day. I just couldn’t do 1,000 words. So I scaled it down to 100 words a day which lets you write a 1,400 word article every two weeks. I wrote more about figuring out this entire process in my 2015 year in review.

Over time, I slowly ramped up my writing to a peak of about 450 words a day. However, I wasn’t writing 450 words a day for the same article. I’d split it up between two articles and the object-oriented book I was writing.

On writing slowly

So why did I split my 450 words a day in three? Seems like it shouldn’t be too hard to write that amount of words for a single article in a day. Well, the reason I did that is that, over time, I discovered that there were benefits to writing at a slower pace.

At its core, writing is about putting our thoughts into words so that others can understand them. But if things aren’t clear in our head, we often find it challenging to write. This is why writing is much more of a thinking exercise and that’s often something that we don’t think about.

So that’s why writing just a tiny bit every day can be very beneficial. Doing so gives you a lot of time to think about what you’re writing about. This can lead to epiphanies and important discoveries between writing sessions. (I’ve stopped counting how many I’ve had!)

Writing this way isn’t without its downsides. One of them is that, if your articles are quite long (like mine!), you can be stuck writing them for a long time. This can be quite demoralizing and you might end up being sick of the topic that you’re writing about.

That said, personally, I wouldn’t write any other way. The advantage of being able to take my time with a topic outweighs the negatives of doing so. So, while this isn’t something that I’ve seen promoted, you should try it out. It might be beneficial to you.

Other things to keep in mind while writing

Alright, so far, we’ve talked about various sources of inspiration that you can look at when you don’t know what to write about. We’ve also looked at the writing process and how you might want to alter it to try to write more on a regular basis. These two things can really help you with your writer’s block.

The last thing that we should talk about is what you should keep in mind when you’re writing. They’re not specific to dealing with writer’s block itself. But they’re things you should strive to do when you’re writing.

Remember that there are other ways to solve problems

Several suggestions for article topics revolved around problems that you’ve faced. It’s tempting to write like the way you solved those problems is the only way to solve them. But that’s almost never the case.

A lot of elements of the problem that you’re writing about might be specific to you. So you should avoid saying that this is the only way to solve that problem. It’s just something that worked for you and might work for others as well.

In fact, that’s also something that applies to this article. What we’ve discussed are tips and suggestions to help you with writer’s block. But they’re still things that have worked for me and they might not for you.

You don’t know everything

Now, let’s take this idea that there are multiple ways to solve problems one step further. One reason why there are multiple ways to solve a problem is because there are limits to our knowledge. We might solve a problem in a specific way because we don’t know any other way to solve it.

That’s why you should try to be honest about what you know and what you don’t. This often makes us uncomfortable because we assume that we have to know everything. Otherwise, people might see us as a fraud or a liar.

But it’s often the opposite, being able to say, “I don’t know” is often a sign of strength. It shows that you understand the limits of your knowledge. And, when you hit those limits, you’ll make an effort to try to overcome them.

Do your best not to be wrong

Making an effort to overcome the limits of your knowledge has its own benefit. It’s that you’re also trying to not be too wrong about what you’re writing about. This is a good thing.

There are a few things that you can do to help with this. You can fact check something as you’re writing about it. For example, I tend to deep dive into a topic as I’m writing about it. I’ll have a few blog posts and Wikipedia articles open. (It’s also why I tend to link to Wikipedia a lot.)

Another thing that you can do to not be too wrong with technical articles is to have a working proof of concept. This means spending time fleshing out the code around your idea. It’s also about making sure that your examples work if someone wants to try it out.

The main issue with this whole focus on not being wrong is that it’s time consuming. It takes a lot of time to do research and to make sure your examples work.

It’s about practice

The best way to look at writing and writer’s block is through the lens of habit building. Building a habit requires consistent work and practice. It’s not something that happens overnight.

And not only does it not happen overnight, but it’s not a straightforward journey either. Writer’s block is just a bump on the road like you would if you were trying to lose weight or exercise regularly. And the best way to overcome those setbacks is to go back to it and keep practicing.

That’s why looking at your writing process is so important. You want a writing process that works with you and not against you. That, combined with the realization that you have a lot more potential sources of material at your disposal, is one way that you can beat writer’s block.

Slides