A Dozen Ways to Hack Your Brain to Write Fluently

Friday, November 16, 2018

Your brain is a ruthless despot. It just doesn’t want to let your ideas and thoughts out. But it has a weak spot. It’s susceptible to brain hacks. Let’s set your ingenuity free by coercing your brain to cast the creative flood gates wide open.

This post is a brief recap of a session given by Dan Allen at Devoxx 2018. The complete presentation can be found online at

Let’s get the ball rolling by starting with a hack that goes by that very name:

1. Get the ball rolling

If you want to write fluently, what you should definitely not do is say, “I’ll start tomorrow.” We both know tomorrow never comes.

Now, I know the next excuse that’s coming. “But I just don’t have time today.”

Let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting that you finish today. All we’re talking about here is starting. Focus on getting the ball rolling. Take comfort in the fact that what you’re writing won’t be finished in just one day, week, month, or longer. But at least the journey will have begun.

It doesn’t matter whether what you write is a whole outline, a few paragraphs, or just a handful of sentences. That little bit, no matter how minute, is actually a whole lot more than you may realize.

Give your mind permission to get into writing, that’s the easiest part. Worry about the finishing part later.

2. Prewrite

When we think of writing, we think of writing, the physical act. But that’s a very narrow way to look at it and it’s precisely why we get stuck staring at a blank page.

In truth, writing begins long before this point…​or it can, if you allow it to. Dan refers to this phase as prewriting and it’s really where the inspiration for writing comes from.

When prewriting, ideas, words, and phrases should be bouncing around in your head. To get that to happen, pull yourself away from your desk and go do something mindless. If you try to chain yourself to your desk, your brain senses that restriction, and that’s when writer’s block sets in. So step away from the headlights of the blank page and the expectations of the keyboard.

Give your brain a chance to roam.

3. Keep a worklog

One of the challenges with writing is knowing what to write about. Even if you had an idea once, the other part is remembering that idea when it comes time to write (or prewrite). What you need is a well to draw from; some sort of writing backlog.

The brain hack used for this is to maintain a file in each project, a worklog. This file contains both notes of what to write (ideas) and notes about what to write better (improvements). It’s a combination of task list, idea board, and journal. It doesn’t contain a lot of information about any one topic, just little sprouts in the form of bullet points.

4. Answer a question

Another way to write fluently is to approach it like communication. We’ve made ourselves believe writing is so hard. But think about e-mail. Most of us are fine with writing emails. A message lands in your inbox, you hit reply and type away. We don’t even consider it writing and we do it all day long.

So how, then, can we use this hack for writing? Well, it’s pretty simple. Formulate a question, then write your response.

With a question just sitting out there, you’ll be compelled to answer it; tapping into something carnal. Use that as an opportunity to tease the information out of your head so you can write fluently.

5. Reply with links

A very clever brain hack Dan discovered to write fluently came from a former colleague of him who’s a system administrator. Whenever someone asks him a question over email, which is often, he doesn’t respond directly anymore. He writes the answer on a wiki page, then replies with a link to that page. If someone comes to him asking the same question, he just points them to that page. Instead of letting e-mail replies eat up his whole day, he reinvests that time into writing actual documentation. So brilliant. Let’s say you’re writing an e-mail, and, mid reply, you realize you’re answering a question that could be documentation. Go on, keep writing. Once your reply gets to a certain length, pull it out, shape it to fit the form of the documentation you want, post it, and reply with a link!

This hack is great for documentation writers as well as support personnel. Whenever a question comes up, either one of two things is true:

  1. It indicates documentation is missing.
  2. The documentation already exists, you just need to help the person find it.

The outcome of either scenario is the same. The question will be covered by documentation. But writing documentation now feels as easy as writing e-mail.

6. Tell your story in headlines

Instead of starting by writing full sentences, tell your story in headlines. What are the eye-catching headlines that would draw readers in? What do you want them to know? What’s the logical progression of that information? Write down those headlines and skip the details.

Surprise, you’ve just hacked your brain into identifying your major points. That’s outlining. All you need to do now is fill the space in between them.

7. Use a content fly trap

As writers, we know nothing is more dreadful than a blank page. Yet the solution is so simple. Just make the page not blank. You don’t have to love what you write, just get something on the page. One idea is to pull something from your WORKLOG. Now you have something to build on.

This hack is called the content fly trap. To write fluently, hang some content out there and let your ideas start clinging to it.

8. Open with the action

A lot of the reason we have trouble getting into the flow is because we choke over the opening. So then start somewhere else.

How does every James Bond film start? With the action, of course. Before the title screen, boom, there’s an action-filled opening scene.

You can do the same with your writing. Open your writing session with the action. Notice the action serves as a content fly trap (hack #7). It’s something tangible to write about. You get warmed up writing the procedure, which is mostly action rather than words. While you’re doing that, it gives you time to think more about the topic in the background (prewriting). And now those words have something to stick to.

9. Ventilate your prose

Instead of stringing together a whole paragraph in one line and letting it soft wrap…​or hard wrapping at a fixed column…​you write prose like you’re writing a list. Each sentence, phrase, or chunk gets its own line. When you’re ready to start the next one, hit return and keep typing. Simple as that. If you’re a developer, you’ll recognize this as how you write statements in a programming language.

10. Pair up

Another great hack for writing fluently is pair writing.

Like with pair programming, you feed off of another person’s brain for ideas, feedback, and energy. Two heads are better than one, particularly during the ideation phase when you want to gather as much raw material as possible.
Humans are social by nature. But when we try to write, we tend to lock ourselves away in solitude. We know from The Shining where that leads to.

11.Do a couch read

Writing isn’t just limited to the physical typing part. Reading your own work is also writing.

When you do that, something special happens. You actually start editing. That’s because you know you wrote it, and you start seeing it for what you want it to be.
But it’s not just any reading.
The best hack to get a big picture view while also catching all the little errors is to do what Dan calls a couch read.
Find a comfortable couch to stretch out on, bring up the document on a portable device such as your phone, and start it reading from top to bottom.

12. Write like yourself

To write fluently, be you. Write like yourself.
Accept that it’s going to sound different than someone else’s writing.
Sure, you can get ideas about structure, format, or turn of phrase from someone else.
But then make it your own, speak in your own voice.
Know that your readers are going to appreciate you for it.
Perhaps they’ve been waiting for your voice to come along and break up the doldrums of what they’ve been reading.

13. Write in AsciiDoc

Write in plain text. Specifically, AsciiDoc.
The biggest interruption to writing fluently is fighting with tools that constantly try to mess with our words, whether it’s formatting, tooltips, or some other distraction.
The bulk of what you’re looking at when you read are the words. That’s what informs, persuades, calls into action.
You don’t want anything to get between you and those words and that’s where your focus should be when writing.
Everything beyond that is polishing and window dressing.
And that’s why you should only worry about it once you’ve completed your manuscript and are ready for publishing.

Hopefully you’ll find these techniques useful for your own writing, I know I do!