How to beat writer's block using Slack

So I counted just now, and apparently I've written about 15,000 words in the last three weeks. About a third of a novel, going by the Nanowrimo convention.

To clarify: I'm not doing Nanowrimo, this happened mostly by accident, and it is not normal for me to write so much. Writing is generally hard for me, but these 15,000 words were easy. I'm pretty giddy about it, and eager to share the trick that caused it.

To back up: like most of my peers, I've had A Blogging Goal since forever. It's an accepted truism in Silicon Valley that everyone who wants to be anyone should write — that even if it took you 20 years to get good and build up an audience, a good blog is so valuable that you ought to start right away. And like most people who want to write, I struggle.

I've been told I'm a good writer, actually. When I worked at Meteor, I wrote a lot for the blog and mailing list. My post on why web beginners should start with Meteor has been one of the Meteor blog's most popular of all time, and apparently inspired people to do drastic things like quit their job. Back in college, I wrote some fanfiction, one of which has 156 reviews saying things like: "Such an emotional yet beautiful fic. I've never cried like that reading something before." To this day, six years later, I still get about one notification a week saying someone has left me "kudos" on one of my stories.

The problem is: getting myself to write has historically been a laborious process involving a lot of procrastination, self-flagellation, accountability systems, locking myself in rooms, turning off WiFi, putting phones on airplane mode, pomodoros, goal-alignment meditation, and all kinds of other willpower-consuming attempts to impose discipline onto a brain that dives headlong toward the nearest source of internet fuckery and self-distraction whenever I ask it: "….sooo, shall we write today?" Even when it was my full-time job to write for Meteor, it took so much effort and willpower to have a good writing day, that I could only manage it about once a week, maybe two or three times if I was feeling cheerful and getting plenty of sleep and one of the posts was allowed to be formulaic.

My main problem is in the rough-drafting phase, the "don't think, just write" early bit that is critical if you want to be prolific, and not merely good. I have premature editing syndrome like it's a disease.

So whence these 15,000 words?

The thingy in a nutshell

Here it is: Do your rough drafting in a Slack chat channel instead of in a document.

That's it. It sounds a bit too-simple and anticlimatic written down, but "I accidentally 15,000 words" crosses the threshhold where perhaps I'm On To Something and should share it anyway.

My personal slack channel wasn't originally conceived of as a writing aid — I figured I would mostly use it as a place to write down my goals for the day, in a place where my roommates might see and hold me accountable. But it's turned out to be the perfect place to ramble stream-of-consciousness style about whatever I'm thinking about, which is what good rough-drafting is all about.

The how-to

  1. Set up a Slack team with a few trusted friends. These should be people that you like and find easy to talk to, people with whom you feel safe sharing half-baked ideas. In my case, my roommates and I already had a house Slack team, just for chatting and bantering and keeping on the same page about house things.

  2. Create a personal channel and add your friends to it. Mine is called #alice-. Channel purpose: "Alice talks to herself, and maybe to you!"

  3. Write liberally about whatever's on your mind. Think out loud. Ramble. Keep it casual — you're just talking to yourself, after all. Your friends can read along (if they want to) at their own pace. And not everything you write has to be Deep Thoughts and Future Blog Posts. Funny incidents and pictures from your day are A-OK too. Just share what's going on with you.

  4. Copy-paste the interesting stuff for editing. Now and then, something interesting and potentially blog-shaped will emerge from your ramblings. Now is the part where you're allowed to move your words into a document and do some editing.

Why it seems to work

Email and chat are so ubiquitious in our lives — so frequently and casually used — that it probably doesn't even feel like writing to you. It's more like talking. You're just having a conversation with a person on the other side. Words flow so much more readily when you're looking at a chat input box or a Gmail compose window, compared to staring at a blank paper or text editor. It somehow bypasses the part of your brain that makes "just writing" hard.

With chat in particular, the medium encourages you to write just a sentence or two at a time, and it prevents you from easily going back and editing the previous line. Once you've hit enter, the focus jumps to the next bit of thought. And unlike a text editor, a chat client feels like it's listening. There's a quiet expectancy to the blank input line. You're in the middle of a long train of thought, and you don't want to leave your listener hanging for too long with only "alice is typing…" to look at. So you get to your point, and resist stalling for the perfect words, and keep the momentum moving forward. Perfect rough-drafting form, in other words.

Why Slack in particular?

There are a lot of chat clients out there, but I think Slack is particularly well suited for writing long-form. For a few reasons:

  1. Multiple independent channels. Slack makes it easy to create any number of channels (i.e. chat rooms), each with its own purpose. I can write as much as I want in #alice- channel without getting in the way of other things my roommates might want to talk about.

  2. No unnecesssary notifications. Imagine writing a long essay a sentence at a time over Facebook Messenger or Gchat. Your friend's phone would be going off every few seconds for a long time, whereas Slack doesn't ping people unless they've been explicitly mentioned. When you write new stuff in your Slack channel, your friends will simply see that your channel has unread messages, the next time they open Slack.

  3. Good for both conversations and monologues. Perhaps THE great thing about Slack is that it's good for having a back-and-forth in real time, but it's also great for writing a bunch of stuff and then having other people read it later. Slack makes it easy for people to find where they left off and catch up, or react in real time if they happen to be on when you are.

  4. Nice mobile versions. Perhaps half the writing I've done in #alice- has been on my phone. I can write in my channel immediately any time I have an interesting thought, then later I can easily copy-paste from the Slack desktop app for editing.

A Slack channel has a quiet, passive-listening quality that makes it really easy to talk to. It doesn't have the "Hey! I'm talking to you right now!" loudness of a strictly realtime chat like Messenger, which would tend to make you shy about posting to the chat.

"Alice talks to herself…" — There's a kind of safe privacy in the Slack channel, like writing in a private journal.

"… and maybe to you!" — But a kind of pointfulness and purpose that a journal lacks. Someone is listening and interested in what you have to say. They might be following along in real time, or they might not. You're not bothering them, either way.

So everything is easy now, right?!

Not exactly. Editing is still a lot of work. It took me nine hours across four days to go from the bit of #alice- ramblings that prompted this post to the finished product, and that process still did involve a lot of procrastination, self-flagellation, etc.

But all the same, historically I've been bottlenecked on rough-drafting, and now I find myself bottlenecked on editing, and that's a big improvement. I now have maybe half a dozen posts sketched out in rough chat form, just waiting and itching to be turned into proper blog posts. Getting started has always been the hardest part for me. Once I have the thoughts in words, however rough, the rest is relatively easy.

Even if you don't publish, I believe the writing itself to be the most important part, especially when you're starting out. It's more important than the medium or distribution. Writing helps you clarify your thoughts, and have more and better thoughts. If you find you write more easily in the form of chats or emails, please do take full advantage of that, and give yourself permission to feel good about writing that takes place in this context. It's "real" writing. It counts. And if something interesting happens to come out of your chat ramblings, and your friends clamor for a shareable link, you can always choose to package up a "proper" blog post. The point of publishing is merely to make your thoughts easier to share outside of your small, trusted Slack audience.

So that's what I've got for now. Welcome to! I hope to have more for you soon.