Top tip for breaking writer’s block

My top tip for getting out of writer’s block is: Move to a different medium, temporarily. Yesterday I was struggling to get started with some writing, and I remembered that this strategy often works for me. So I tried it. It worked again!

By “moving to a different medium”, I mean opening a text editor and jotting my thoughts there, or writing on a scratch pad, or simply opening a page that is completely separated from the work that I’m trying to complete.

When I’m trying to write something, there are two decisions I need to make:

  • What do I want to say?
  • Where should I put it?

Sometimes the two decisions are so intertwined that my brain gets in a loop. I start writing, then I think, “Wait, this shouldn’t go here.” So I delete what I’ve written. But then I realise that I do need to write it, and start again, and … loop. Then I spend time trying to figure out where the content should go, which makes me lose my thread of thought and lose impetus.

This destructive loop can happen in any type of writing. Most recently, it happened to me when I was providing detailed feedback in a doc review. I wanted to help the author with the syntax and correctness of the content, but the work also needed higher-level input on the structure of the page as a whole and its location in the doc set. I started putting my feedback on the page itself, but some of the feedback was too high level to belong on the page, or so I thought. So I removed what I’d written. But then there was nowhere to put that feedback, and I lost time trying to figure out how to give the feedback rather than focusing on what the feedback actually should be.

I was stuck. I went for a walk to clear my head. In the middle of my walk, I remembered what’s worked before! I moved out of the doc review tool into a text editor and jotted down my feedback as it came to me, without trying to decide where it belonged. When I’d finished, it was easy to slot the pieces of feedback into the right place.

This type of writer’s block can happen when you’re writing a book (“should this content be in the book, or is it more like plot and character notes for me, or should it be in the blurb?”) or a technical document (“does this content belong in this doc or another doc, or should I split the doc, or does it belong in a blog post?”) and so on..

Moving to a different format or medium gives my brain the freedom to write what I need to say. After that, it’s relatively easy to decide where the content should go.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 20 September 2020, in technical writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Sarah, great tip! Thanks. I’ll definitely use this the next time I’m “stuck”.

    I think that, as professional writers, doing the bread-and-butter part of our day job, in these situations, it’s easy to think that we should just be able to do it, and try to power on. After all, this is what we do day in and day out, isn’t it?

    But I so identify with your dilemmas (does this bit belong here, does this bit matter, why am I finding this so hard, I’m stuck, aaagh!). But the fact is that, except in very simple cases, even us professional writers need to collect the information before we can organise it. Admittedly, as we gain more experience, we recognise more patterns that we’ve seen before, and can tackle more complex problems without batting an eyelid. In these cases, we don’t explicitly need to organise our facts, because we are working to a pattern we organised before.

    But not every piece of work falls into that category, or is close enough to one that does. And taking the step back also helps break the “aargh, why am I finding this so hard?” message that’s playing in our brain.

    I have a piece of work on Monday that I’m definitely going to use this approach on! Thank you.

    • Hallo Titch!

      Thanks for your great comment. You’re so right about that tendency to think we should be able to “just do this” because it’s our day job, but it’s hard. I really like the way you describe what we learn with experience – how we gain that ability to recognize patterns and use that knowledge to do our work more efficiently.

      Good luck with that piece of work on Monday. 🙂


  2. Good advice – thanks for sharing. I was just reading an interview with Russell Banks in which he said the following about writing on a computer – “Every now and then I get stuck and I’m frozen by it. I find myself locking up, and I have to return to the body in a more literal way and start writing out in long hand. I change the technical means by which I speak and shift back down to writing by hand with a fountain pen on lined paper. And when that doesn’t work, I’ll shift the medium and move to a regular typewriter.”

    Seems you are in good company with your process of changing the format or medium to free yourself from writer’s block! 🙂


    • Hallo Dave
      Thanks, that’s interesting! Maybe computers add a level of complexity by making so many things possible, with the result that we sometimes need to go back to basics to reset our brains.

  1. Pingback: Writers block at work? Learn from tech authors’ struggles and successes. – Data states, writing illuminates

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