The flashing cursor. The snow-white screen. The slowly mounting terror.
When you sit down to write, the fear of the blank page can be incredibly overwhelming. Whether you’re writing a novel, an essay, a blog post, or simply a letter to a friend, that endless expanse of nothingness can make it very hard to get the somethingness out of your head and into word form.
As someone whose entire job revolves around getting her butt in her chair and her writing done, I’m no stranger to this fear. Over the past few years, I’ve had to hone my arsenal of tools and strategies in order to make sure that I can always work my way past the fear and sidestep the paralysis.
Here’s how I push through…
1. Don’t panic.
Every writer feels this way sometimes. Truly. The more you panic, the more pressure you put on yourself. Just let the fear be there, acknowledge her presence (Hello, old friend), and keep your ass in front of that computer.
2. Get rid of the Big Blank Page altogether.
If you’ve just opened up a fresh Word document, or a brand new WordPress post, the blank screen has an implicit demand behind it —You need to fill me, sucker!
The scale of the task ahead can seem insurmountable.
The best solution? Get the hell out of that big scary space… and open up an email instead. Yes, an email. Now, imagine that you’re writing to a friend — someone you love, who makes you feel confident, who needs your words. Start writing your message to them, as though they are the only person who will read what you’re writing and the only person you need to connect with.
If you really want to relax yourself, feel free to pour a glass or two of vino at this stage to really let those barriers down.
Just make sure you don’t accidentally press send.
(And be prepared for an extra round of editing!)
3. Make an outline.
It sounds so unsexy, but it’s so.damn.helpful.
If you’re struggling to get started, it can often be because your thoughts haven’t yet coalesced into a nice, neat order. And the thing is, they likely never will unless you give them a framework in which to do so.
Some people like to type their outline, but I much prefer the more visual, tangible experience of going analogue with a pen and paper. It helps me get a big-picture view of where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.
I don’t always write an outline for my blog posts, but for any long-form writing I do, it’s essential.
4. Ask yourself ‘What am I actually trying to say?’
This question has gotten me through every kind of writing snafu ever. From needing to word delicate requests, to turning down inconsiderate offers, to breaking up with someone via text. (Just kidding!)
When you’re stuck on the words, come back to your purpose. It’s usually enough to jolt you into action.
5. Just get words on the page. No matter how crap they may seem.
In high school, when confronted with difficult assignments or essays, I always got myself started by just spewing words onto a page — even if they didn’t make sense, even if they were crap, even if they were some mutated form of the English language. I carried this proud tradition into law school. For every assignment that threatened to do my head in (and most of them did), I started with simply putting my word-vomit on the page.
This habit has served me insanely well as a writer. I cannot evenbegin to tell you the number of times I have been completely stumped by what to write for a client. And I’m talking at-what-point-should-I-just-refund-their-money stumped.
But every single time, putting shit on the page works.
See, once you’ve got words on the page, you’ve got something to work with. You’ve got pieces of the puzzle to polish and prettify. You can edit, zhoosh, switch, expand, or consult the Thesaurus to your heart’s content. And in the interests of full disclosure, this is how the vast majority of my work comes about — carved and whittled and raised out of truly shit beginnings.
Anne Lamott put it best, in her briliant book Bird by Bird, dubbing this process the ‘shitty first draft’ technique —
“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts… For me and most other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. If fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
You just have to face the page long enough to get that shitty first draft out.
6. Quit imagining your readers.
Another way we put undue pressure on ourselves? Imagining how the final product will be received — by your sister, by your best friend, by the random lady who stalks your Facebook page.
I have a confession regarding this point. About eight years ago, I was working on a piece of literary fiction, and (I kid you not) I paralysed myself into inaction by imagining what the Man Booker judges would say about my book (hello, ego!). I only ever got 20 000 words into the manuscript because I couldn’t help but picture the international literati poring over my every word with a fine-tooth comb.
Delusional, yes. Paralysing? Definitely.
These days, I’m much better at ignoring the future reader. Especially during the initial writing stages where you’ve got to be a bit gentle on yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to consider your readers later (like during the editing and rewriting) but definitely not during those delicate, fragile first stages.
And by the way, those people whose opinions you’re so worried about? Unless they’re busy creating art themselves (painting, writing, blogging, wrenching their innards onto the page), their opinions shouldn’t interest you. People who don’t have skin in the game can never truly understand what it’s like (and people who are in the sandbox will appreciate how much grit it took to just get it done.)
7. Have a bunch of ideas ready and raring to go.
This one applies to writing blog posts especially.
The process of coming up with ideas is different to the process of actually writing those ideas into existence. They take different brain states and require different types of discipline.
I’m a fan of capturing all your ideas in one or two designated spots (for me, that’s my trusty notebook, my Evernote file, and a designated document on my computer for when I’m offline). These go-to vessels then become the repository for all your ideas. Which means that every time you sit down and find yourself facing a blank page, you don’t actually have to struggle to come up with an idea — you’ve already got that shizzle sorted.
Your task then is infinitely easier — it’s just about how to bring that idea to life. No biggie at all, right?!
Got any blank page fear-busting tactics of your own?
I’d love to hear them — come say hi on Instagram and share away!