Writers block at work? Learn from tech authors’ struggles and successes.

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In a recent survey, 69 tech writers said they often experience “blocked” periods of time when it’s difficult to write. Words they used to describe such blocks included “frustration, struggle, painful, paralyzing, stuck, demotivate”. Those 69 were almost three-quarters of everyone who answered my survey; 73% to be exact. Most of them experienced these blocks at least every few days. Apparently, creative angst affects not just novelists or poets.

Not a tech writer. Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash.

I also ran shorter polls before that about writer’s block in general work communication, for example emails or presentations. Apparently, general work writers get blocked frequently too.

Why did I bother researching writer’s block?

I cared about this subject for a personal reason. In my career so far, and in side projects like this blog, I’ve helped many people communicate more effectively. Often through software – implementing, designing, managing – and often also through coaching colleagues or clients through what I’d learned myself about getting messages across. Yet I could still get as blocked as anyone when writing about new or particularly complex concepts. I’d eventually come up with something quite nice, but it took some pain to get there.

I started learning the craft of tech writing on the job, doing outsourced manual-writing for a Nordic phone manufacturer. I learned a lot, from the company’s comprehensive style guide and from the HQ editor’s copious red pen markings (pixels not ink, but just as staining to my pride). And so I thought I knew a lot.

HTC Touch Cruise with Footprints app

Then I joined HTC, and got my first assignment to write about a new map-based application. I dove into it, trying the app inside out, learning secrets about location services, getting final builds. And then all I had was to write about it. Yet my style guide knowledge failed me as I tried to come up with new, never-before written sentences to connect real users in the world with the features, use cases and constraints of the app.

And my blank screen stared back at me for the longest time until the lead writer took pity and suggested some starting points, and my writing gears once more rotated into action, and after many polishes, we came out with a reasonably good account of the new app.

More recently, two big role and company changes later, I procrastinated on a strategy paper until the deadline caught up and I finally ploughed through it one night on vacation once I’d got my daughters to sleep.

But I hadn’t spent much time thinking about writer’s block, and about its effects on myself and others, until I started making videos exploring how the process of writing can help us think better and make better decisions at work.  At some point I realized that writing doesn’t come naturally to many people, and that to use it to think, one first needs to become more comfortable with its rhythm. I read a book on the subject that spoke deeply to me – Peter Elbow’s “Vernacular Eloquence”, of which a quote:

Researchers in my field have long reveled in documenting how much writing is done in virtually all the professions… Research shows that the average engineer spends between a quarter and a third of the week writing.” Now a simple question: how many of these fairly competent writers feel genuinely at home as they write? …a large proportion of skilled competent writers (most?) don’t really feel quite comfortable or in their element as they write. They don’t feel writing as something that belongs to them or fits them.…I think I see that most fairly competent writers put off writing as long as they can and undertake the job with some reluctance, often some anxiety.

Peter Elbow, “Vernacular Eloquence
Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

And as I worked back through first principles and tried to plan a video about this, I ironically found myself firmly blocked, a creative interruption that lasted for some months as I juggled the ideas, read some more, and made false start after false start.

So I decided to investigate writer’s block itself. How many business or tech writers does it affect? Do they mind it? Is it an inevitable part of expressing complex ideas, and should we even welcome it?

Why look at tech writing specifically?

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

First I polled connections on LinkedIn and Twitter. Learning that it’s widespread, I decided to focus more on a group of professional writers who you’d think would be least affected by creative turmoil – tech writers. Picture them – what do you see? I see folk in open-plan offices, talking to engineers. Sometimes in factories and maintenance depots, interviewing, taking notes and photos. Working with PLM designs, or researching next year’s new rules and guidelines. THEY ARE NOT IN GARRETS, NOR ARE THEY GENERALLY STARVING.

This was kind of the pinnacle of factual professional writing. So, did writer’s block affect tech authors, not just poets and novelists? As it turned out from the survey, blocks definitely affected them, and many weren’t too happy about it.

What to do, then? In the same survey I explored the causes of blocks, typical ways to overcome them, and any tips that respondents had for other writers. The results were fascinating.

What do tech writers (and writer’s block researchers) see as the causes of blocks?

There were many causes, but the two biggest were:

  • The current area that you are writing about is new or unfamiliar (53% of respondents)
  • It is not easy to explain complex concepts so that users can understand and act on them (44% of respondents)

This says to me that blocks are more often about the ideas themselves than the mechanics of writing. As Mark Baker put it in a LinkedIn comment:

We have to distinguish composition from transcription. There are times when you wrestle with a thorny compositional issue and no transcription takes place. There are also times when you have nothing to say.

So composition is a more frequent cause of blocks than is transcription.

These top two causes were consistent across respondents who frequently became blocked (every month or more often) and those blocked less often (once or twice a year, very rarely or never). Yet for the latter group of “low-blockers”*, other causes were far less common than they were for the “high-blockers”*. In addition to the “compositional” factor, some high-blockers tended to get stuck also with the formal expectations for the content type.

Some of the high-blockers also implicated perfectionism in their comments, for example:

…it can be very paralyzing to get started particularly when you know it simply won’t be perfect.

This tallied with what I’d read in Mike Rose’s classic study, “Writer’s Block: the cognitive dimension”. He observed high-blockers getting stuck when focusing too early on the formal mechanics of writing, for example a writer for whom:

…the final stymieing touch… was her concentration on verbal surface – concentrating on the minutiae of surface even before a fundamental confusion about topic was resolved

Mike Rose, “Writer’s Block: the cognitive dimension

Rose noted that it wasn’t that high-blockers disliked writing; in fact some seemed to revel in playing with words before the underlying concepts were baked. He wrote that two of the research subjects:

…enjoy “monkeying around” with language or finding the “perfect word” but, in this case, to the detriment of their fluency.

This love of tweaking surface features showed up for a high-blocker in my survey too, an “editor at heart” who “would much rather whip the familiar into shape” than wrestle with unfamiliar subjects.

What helps to unblock writing?

Many just take a break (62% of respondents) or do some physical activity such as tidying or walking (48%). A respondent who “very rarely or never” experienced blocks described a productive process:

First read up everything I can and jot down a sequence of points. Then take break and let my subconscious mind sort stuff out. Then I return to writing and everything just pours out.

By the way, it seems that other respondents viewed this kind of need to take a break as a block in itself. Perhaps the biggest overall difference I picked up between the the low-blockers and high-blockers was simply that the low-blockers patiently accepted writing as a winding path that starts messily, progresses unevenly, and builds gradually to something more polished.

Some high-blockers also recognized that process, but felt it to be frustrating. A writer who felt blocked every few days wrote:

Sometimes you just have to write something on the subject at hand even if it’s garbage that you end up not using or end up editing completely. Basically you just have to “get over the hump”. I’m a perfectionist and this is VERY painful for me. I believe a lot of the tech writers I know are also perfectionist types, as I see them going through the same struggles.

Other techniques were also popular:

Although only about a third of writers said they started in another medium, it’s something that tech writers value in general. In another poll I ran on this specifically (I’ve been busy!), 74% of 377 respondents told me that they at least occasionally “first write rough drafts of new content in another tool/medium”:

Screenshot 2022-05-02 at 21.56.23.png

And moving to a different medium temporarily is acclaimed tech author Sarah Maddox’s “Top tip for breaking writer’s block“, so I’d say there’s something worth trying here for anyone who doesn’t usually!

Another blogger, Bart Leahy of “Heroic Tech Writing”, recommends freewriting as a way to unblock blocks, like almost one-third of the survey respondents. Interestingly, for this approach, there was quite a gap between low-blockers at 15% and high-blockers at 42%. Could it be that low-blockers simply take more of a relaxed approach to drafting in the first place, and what a high-blocker might call freewriting is just a low-blocker’s normal drafting? Or could it be, as Mike Rose suggested, that freewriting may actually confuse more than it elaborates?

Some current invention strategies like brainstorming and freewriting encourage the student to generate material without constraint. Certainly there are times when such fecund creativity is helpful. But I suspect that the more prescribed a task is, the less effective such freewheeling strategies might be: the student generates a morass of ideas that can lead to more disorder than order, more confusing divergence than clarifying focus.

Are there any top tips to cope with blocks?

Any survey like this hints at answers, but generates more questions. I do feel though that three things became clearer to me – they’ve helped my writing already, and I hope they’ll help you too:

  1. Writing is a process, not an outcome as such. It goes smoothest for those who are happy to start imperfectly and work gradually towards the result.
  2. Nevertheless, you need to start in a meaningful way: that means grappling with the ideas at hand, not endlessly generating new ones or distracting yourself with surface aspects of language before you’ve figured out what you need to say. “Grappling” can mean working with the ideas visually or talking through them, but ultimately usually involves getting down to some writing too.
  3. Blocks midway can be a sign that you need to step back temporarily and approach things in a different way. Breaks or physical activities can help to let the unconscious do its own work, but using different media, representing ideas visually, and chunking concepts up into smaller units can all help. A respondent described this well:

First read up everything I can and jot down a sequence of points. Then take break and let my subconscious mind sort stuff out. Then I return to writing and everything just pours out.

A final tip: when it comes to chunking ideas up, for example by outlining the piece before you write it, there’s a helpful way and a less helpful way. All too often, tech writers and business writers in general focus on the safe ground of the “things” you’re writing about. That could be machine components, API methods, UI dialogs, specific rules, or the kind of abstract concepts that often end up in PowerPoint bullets, to pass through the audience largely undigested.

Yet, audiences often want, more than mere descriptions of the “things”, some guidance as to how they all fit together:

  • Yes, there are these API methods; what’s the best way to work with a number of them to achieve my goal?
  • How do I plan installing a large industrial assembly from a holistic point of view (safe environment? prerequisites?) before I start looking at the individual components?
  • If I apply this rule, what else do I need to take into account?
  • You’re telling me about a concept – can you unpack it a bit? Who does what, for what purpose, in this business idea?

To relate things together, we need verbs, and verbs belong in sentences. If you’re outlining a piece of writing, do so in sentences that express the main idea of each section. Sentences force you to think through what you’re saying in some depth, and sometimes make you realize that you need to rework your ideas. I made a video about using sentences to improve presentations, but it works just as well for initial outlining (probably better actually, since as several viewers pointed out, my example slides in the video ended up on the wordy side!)

This outlining-with-whole-sentences isn’t my idea; I’m just passing it on. I’ve read it from a number of great writing teachers, most recently and persuasively Peter Elbow:

You could call this an outline, but I find it helpful to think of it as a story outline. It’s made of sentences that tell a kind of story of thinking—a story that feels coherent and sensible. It’s an outline of thoughts, not just single words or single phrases that point to mere topics or areas.

Peter Elbow, “Vernacular Eloquence

But that’s one technique, and ultimately what was clear from my research was that no one technique can rid us of writer’s block. What seems to help most is to just accept the iterative process of writing, with all its modest starts, false starts, temporary blocks, and gradual moves towards work we’re proud of. As one respondent wrote:

It’s part of the job; don’t let it frustrate you or question your talent as a writer. You got this!

Limits of the survey approach

  • Most likely the respondents were self-selecting, ie were more likely to take the survey if they did experience some writing blocks. However, the consistency of the top-reported reasons for blocks and methods to overcome blocks gave me some confidence that the trends should apply to a wider population to some degree.
  • It’s not at all clear if the differences between low-blockers and high-blockers were causal (ie does avoiding conscious free-writing help keep things productive, or do low-blockers just do less freewriting anyway (or even do it but not really be aware of it?)
  • I didn’t attempt any kind of statistical significance test on the results, and indeed more of the insights I felt I got were from the free-text comments that respondents wrote.

*With “high-blockers” and “low-blockers”, I’m using the terminology of Mike Rose in “Writer’s Block: the cognitive dimension”.

One comment

  1. Great post, thanks Joe. A lot of things here ring true.

    For me, the best unblocker is using paper and pen, which I find helps with flow. In my case, I get imperfect but fluent content that I can then build on. Time pressure also helps push the process – though in a less pleasant way!

    Liked by 1 person

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