Some (more) writing tips

My last post contained one of the tricks I use when writing – how I use iteration when I’m writing. It’s one technique I use to make steady progress and avoid writers block. Although that post was about iteration in general, it reminded me that I have a few other tricks that I wanted to share.

Before you eagerly read on, please remember that I’m not an expert writer. I have some experience, but I don’t claim to have it all figured out. I think it takes much more than a handful of magazine articles and part of a few books under your belt to claim you actually know how to write or are anything remotely close to an expert, so please take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, there were a few other techniques I used when writing both hwtsam and my chapter in Beautiful Testing that help me a ton when writing.

First – if you want to write, dedicate some time for it. I found that I needed at least an hour to be effective, and would often block off 2-3 hour chunks of time on weekends. In one prolific stretch of writing, I took a week off of work, and wrote every day from 9-12 and again from 1-4. In my hour “off” I would go for a run and grab some food – the break was very energizing. I think I wrote 3 full chapters of hwtsam that week.

My next trick was to employ the (10+2)*5 trick (I wrote a windows sidebar javascript applet to help with this). The idea is simple. Write for 10 minutes – don’t stop. If you feel blocked, move to the next section (see my last post on iteration for more details). Refuse to be distracted by anything during those 10 minutes. When 10 minutes is up (my applet sounded a bell and changed color), do something else. Sometimes I would stare at the ceiling, sometimes I would check email, and sometimes I would glance at my rss feed. Even if you’re “on a roll”, stop and take a break. When the 2 minutes is up, repeat. Then repeat a few more times. Once you’ve gone through five of these 10+2 minute cycles, an hour is gone (and if your experience is like mine, you made a heck of a lot of progress). At this point you can launch straight into another hour, or you can do what I did and take an extended stretch and refill the coffee break. I have no idea if this will work for anyone else writing about testing (or any other subject), but I can tell you that I don’t recall ever having writers block – in fact, I sort of believe it doesn’t actually exist, but I’ll save that discussion.

Final tip (and also a sure writers block stopper) is something I picked up from Hemingway (not directly, but through the Paris Review). The tip is to stop writing every day before you’ve run out of ideas (I couldn’t find the actual quote where I read this, so bear with me). Think of this scenario: you’re cranking out some prose at the end of the day. You have a fantastic idea for a sample, story, or exposition – something that you’re ready to crank out and know what you want to do. My advice is to NOT write it. Instead, jot down a few notes that will help you get things going the next day and then call it a night. Otherwise, if you write your brilliant work at the end of the day, you’ll have to start from a clean plate the next day, and starting writing from a blank page is hard. I find it so much easer to get in the flow of writing if I already know exactly what I’m starting with in the morning. Sometimes a night of sleep also helps to vet the idea a bit more. Again, ymmv.

Hope there’s some useful stuff in here.


  1. Have you ever had a consistent problem with your writing? Everyone who doesn’t like my writing says the same exact thing about it. I try and try to fix it. Sometimes it get slightly better. I wonder if I’m just naturally lacking in writing talent even though I have some good ideas and would do better to let someone else express them.

    To make matters more confusing, women usually seem to be ok with my writing style. Some men absolutely hate it. Most people who read about software are still male. When I write about makeup, crafting, or cooking I get good feedback.

    Any advice if you are just annoying some people so much that they have the “kill it!” response to your writing? I’d prefer it if my writing wasn’t compared to torture for the reader in the future. Is iterating more the key for me? My first article I rewrote twice and still two different people told me they disliked the same thing about the final draft.

    I see writing that is much better than mine, and I can pretend to be like that, but it isn’t natural and it isn’t me. I don’t know how to make me better other than to keep trying and editing more myself. Any tips?

    [Alan] – hmmm – I read your blog and don’t have any problems with your style – and there are people who write in magazines regularly who have writing styles I don’t like. I think that you’re never going to please everyone, so it’s better to polish what you have than try to change for the masses.

    That said, this book helped me get past quite a few stylistic issues and helped me generally focus. I think it’s written for journalists mostly, but I found it valuable in helping me clean up some loose ends in my writing approach.

  2. Good advice! Have to trust the master for any advice about writing. I always keep a notebook or my Blackberry with Vlingo with me always to record ideas.

  3. Very nice post. I thought to let you know that you wbsite isn’t getting displayed properly on skyfire mobile web browser on my pda.

    Have a nice time…sorry for typos

  4. Thanks for this post. It really helped me get over the hump on the writing I have to do but haven’t been.


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