How to overcome writer’s block and write faster

I once heard that if you can write well, you can think well. A person’s written works are a very reliable and simple parameter to evaluate their intelligence. Since writing well opens so many doors in your personal, social and work life, you will want to know how to write faster and more efficiently, right?

It turns out that the best method for writing well is not having a method. Let me explain. You’re probably familiar with the productivity bible. Yes, I’m referring to David Allen’s Get Organized with Effectiveness (GTD for short Gettings Things Done). Almost all entrepreneurs and productivity lovers have read it or at least are familiar with its very famous concepts. Well, with almost all of its concepts…

Horizontal planning

What David Allen calls “horizontal planning” has been immortalized and seems to be the only focus of discussion every time someone talks about his GTD method. Horizontal planning consists of detecting and organizing everything we want, can and have to do. It involves the classic 5 steps of collect, process, organize, review and do.

GTD Horizontal Planning

Natural or vertical planning

However, there is an underrated gem in chapter 3 of his book, which I intend to dust off in this article. It is vertical or natural planning, used for projects that require many steps.

Vertical planning is a set of principles to clarify ideas about big or confusing things that occupy our mind, of which we do not know how to start. That’s why it applies very well to writing.

David Allen also calls vertical planning natural planning because it is precisely how our brain operates naturally. It does it much more efficiently than when we want to impose an artificial method on it.

Our brain has evolved to be very efficient at directing attention to solve problems or create things. That is why it is not a good strategy to divert the course of thought to follow an imposed series of steps. I’ll explain with an example.

Don’t write your articles in order

A terrible but often repeated advice is that you should first write the introduction, then the development and finally the conclusion. No! Write down every single thing that comes to your brain, even if they are random, unconnected or even bad ideas. You will see how your mind will make connections by ordering the ideas more and more and eliminating the worst ones.

It will never be convenient to make a list of steps for a creative work such as writing. At best you can make a checklist to see if what you have written can be improved.

Vertical planning will help you write faster.
A fundamental principle of vertical planning is to let your brain make the connections in the order it deems appropriate (left) rather than imposing a series of artificial steps on it (right).

Don’t be pigeonholed into the structure of the article

If you don’t write in order, it makes sense to think about the headings or main sections of the article before you start. However, developing an outline before writing the article can also create a mental block.

When you start writing, ideas are not clear and orderly, so you will often find that the outline you originally thought of has been drastically changed.

I don’t mean that writing the subtitles first is a bad idea. It’s just that one can run the risk of getting pigeonholed. What I do is try not to think of the concept of “titles” or “subtitles”, and I definitely don’t format anything.

Write without formatting, focus on the content

When writing, I use the same font, the same font size and the same format for everything. The only thing that changes are the indentations that indicate the level of importance of an idea. For this purpose outliners like Workflowy, Dynalist or Onenote are amazing. I treat each paragraph as if it were a folder with infinite sub-levels.

So to summarize, I like to brainstorm what many people might call “subtitles”, but I am very detached from them. They are totally volatile and temporary. Content is added within them, they are rearranged, deleted, etc.

Don’t leave ideas in your mind, write everything!

Brainstorming may sound like a very artificial methodology, but the truth is that our brain does it automatically all the time. When your partner asks you if you want to go out to dinner, or when you travel to your boss’s office, your brain analyzes thousands of variables in a short time.

However, for large projects or to write something, you will need to help your brain by recording the ideas in some external source if you want to do it well, and this will increase your personal productivity tremendously.

This is because humans are very bad at focusing attention on a subject for more than two minutes without the help of some external retention tool. In the words of David Allen:

Think of a project you are currently working on and try to concentrate on it alone for more than sixty seconds. It is quite a difficult task unless you have a pencil and paper and use those “cognitive artifacts” to retain your ideas. If you have them, you can think about the same thing for hours. This explains why the best ideas can emerge in front of the computer or by drawing a mind map on a napkin in a restaurant.

David Allen

To have good ideas you must have many ideas

The main advice for brainstorming is to look for quantity, not quality. This is not the time to discriminate whether an idea is good or bad.

Brainstorming is an excellent antidote to writer's block.
Diagram of natural planning. To avoid writer’s block, repeat brainstorming cycles and organize them until you are satisfied with your product.

When you write many ideas, one will make you think of another, and so on, so you will get many ideas that you would not have gotten if you had just decided what is a good idea and what is not.

The best way to know what is a good idea is to know that it is not. So in the next brainstorming, don’t use an umbrella.

Conclusions

  • Don’t make a list of steps to write. Instead, use a checklist to see how to improve what you have already written.
  • Don’t get pigeonholed into the structure of the article you originally thought of, it almost always changes.
  • Leave the style and formatting to the end.
  • Don’t store ideas in your head, write them down even if they are not so good.

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Christian Jabloñski
Christian Jabloñski

Excellent blog launch post. It looks very professional and aesthetic. Keep in that way!