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Overcoming the writer's block
Writing is a life skill for PMs. Writing is crucial to building shared context, ideating solutions, and inspiring and rallying teams around a common mission. Writing is the most powerful tool to crystalize your ideas and establish your brand as a thought leader. Essentially, a written artifact is your top output to drive the business outcomes and your career! So, practicing and mastering this skill is critical for your PM nirvana.
PMs write countless writeups ranging from a simple spec to a critical email to a game-changing business proposal. Irrespective of what we write, we encounter three hurdles to writing - inertia, distraction, and perfectionism.
In this post, I share practical tips to not only overcome these common hurdles but make them work for you. We will use a product spec as an example to make the concept more relatable.
Counter the inertia
We underestimate the hurdle of taking the first step - how and where to start. Eliminate this barrier by creating a 1-click process to start writing. For example, set an easily accessible bookmark or a keyboard shortcut that opens a blank document. Start in full screen to focus from the get-go and disable digital notifications from your phone and computer. Keep a pen and paper to jot down random ideas and to-dos that can come up during the writing.
In essence, eliminate excuses to get started and set the momentum.
Timebox a dirty draft
You can overcome the biggest writer's block by decoupling the “draft” step from the “finish” step. Schedule a 30-minute writing block for your first draft. Our mind cooperates better when it knows it’s OK to work on a particular task. Time-boxing also helps overcome Parkinson’s law by simulating urgency. Once the time starts, offload your thoughts that come naturally without worrying about grammar and formatting.
To further facilitate the draft, utilize common templates to boost your writing. A typical product spec will include:
Customer segment/user persona
Goal of the product
Proposed solutions, if any, and a decision framework
Appendix for linked resources
Finish the obvious sections first. Put placeholders like “need more info” or “TBA” to favor breadth over depth.
Don’t break the flow if the timer goes off; use the inertia of writing and finish as much as possible in that go. For sections that require deeper thinking, schedule a follow-up time. Repeat this activity if you are building a complex article.
Edit with a minimalist mindset
No one has time to process elaborate content. Ruthlessly remove extraneous content or push it to the appendix. Define terminologies and acronyms upfront to normalize repeated concepts. Use clear visuals, tables, screenshots, and examples to minimize TTG (time to grock). Follow a top-down information hierarchy - summarizing the highlights at the top and detailing as needed.
Share the draft with your trust circle as soon as possible. This includes the designer, lead engineer, or a peer PM. Sharing the draft simulates a hindsight bias that forces you to be clear and productive. Your perfectionism will compel you to polish the work before someone sees it, so you will find obvious gaps much faster.
Seek inline feedback from your collaborators and take the article to the next level of readiness. Asides from the co-authoring benefits, sharing early builds trust and sets the ownership of the work.
Schedule a review and sign off
Schedule a doc review with the relevant team members and stakeholders at your earliest convenience. Share the file as a pre-read with the attendees to be considerate of those who like to process before they share meaningful feedback.
During the meeting, share the context and actively seek feedback. Evolve the spec in real time to leverage the momentum and prevent another procrastination opportunity. Incorporating the team’s feedback fosters an inclusive culture and a growth mindset by modeling “a spec doesn’t need to be perfect” and “I don’t need to know everything.”
Once reviewed, set a rigid sign-off date for your write-up to beat the perfectionists in you. And in turn, expedite the product lifecycle from in-spec to the design/dev phase.
Make the content easily discoverable so collaborators can continue to refine and evolve the shared knowledge.
Learn, iterate, and evolve
While the shelf-life of most writeups is short, well-written documents can be lasting resources. First, they can serve as a source of truth if they are kept up to date. Second, they can be a template for your future write-ups. Third, they can track your progress as a writer. Periodically, review older write-ups and assess your progress in terms of time-to-value, brevity, and fidelity. I sometimes review my old emails, specs, news posts, and blog posts and even correct and refine the content. There’s no audience for that content anymore, but I do it for my own continuous improvement.
Learn from other writers. Observe their style and explore concepts you could incorporate into your writing. Actively seek feedback from your peers and mentors. Finally, help others become better writers. Prioritize time to review, edit and share feedback on your peer’s work. You will learn from their writing style and build equity for future review needs.
In closing, people form your brand through your written communication. So, write well! Like any other skill, writing takes practice. And by proactively overcoming writer’s blocks, you can increase your writing velocity and expedite your learning curve.