Beat Blank Page Syndrome

Anyone who writes, whether for school, for work, or for a living knows the scene: you sit there, a blank document open on your computer screen, that little cursor silently (accusingly?) blinking away, and your mind a complete blank. You know overall what you want to say, but how do you get there?

Fortunately, there are ways to beat that blank page into submission. The trick isn’t to obsess over finding the perfect opening remarks, but to focus on getting words on the page — any words. More often than not, that means forgetting about the brilliant opening line and instead letting yourself write a bunch of crap you’ll never use. What you’ll find is that once that page is all mucked up, the “good stuff” will start to flow.

Here are ten tricks that will help you get past your blank page paralysis and into the good stuff.

  1. Start in the middle: Forget the introduction, and jump straight into whatever part you feel comfortable writing. Most of the time, the introduction is the weakest part of the finished product anyway, because we sharpen our thoughts as we write. Go back at the end and write an introduction. Or don’t — a lot of times, you’ll find that your non-introduction turns out to be a pretty good introduction.
  2. Write to someone you know: A lot of time we get all caught up in trying to write something for “everybody”. Find a voice by imagining you’re writing to someone you know — a friend, a family member, your 10th grade English teacher, the guy you hate in accounting — and writing in a way that they would understand. You can even start with “Dear Margaret, I’m writing to tell you about the amazing new product my company is introducing” or whatever — you’ll go back and delete that later.
  3. “Outline-expand-expand-done”: Forget writing straight through. Just write an outline. Then, go back and flesh it out a little, adding a sentence here, a paragraph there. Do that again, also focusing on how one part fits into the next. Repeat as necessary until you’re done.
  4. Write backwards: Skip to the end. What do you want your reader to take away from the piece? OK, write that. What’s the last thing they should understand in order to take that away? Skip to the top and write that. Keep working backwards through the document until you reach a logical beginning place, then write your introduction. Then go through front-to-back and clean it up.
  5. Tell a story: You don’t have to write a document that answers all life’s questions or applies universally. Narrow it down by writing a story. Who are the main players? What do.did they do? What is the conflict? Write “Once upon a time, there were…” and work into your topic. “Once upon a time, there was a young man who didn’t know how best to clean and polish his household silver…” Yeah, it’s stupid, but you’ll end up with a lot of language you can use — go through and cut out the story part and see what’s left.
  6. Free-write/free-talk: Write gibberish. Or get a recorder and talk gibberish. Just throw out words until something starts to make sense. Free associate — writing howto typing people writers… Keep writing whatever comes to mind — what you want for breakfast, how stupid free writing is, who you hate most — for a set period of time (5 minutes is good) or until the page is good and gunked up, then write a line relating to your topic. Write another. Go ahead and write a third. Feels ok, right? Write two more — hey, that’s starting to look like a paragraph! Keep going until you’re done, then go back and delete all the garbage.
  7. Use a pen and paper: Change things up! Step away from the keyboard, grab a pen and some paper (steal from the printer’s tray if you don’t have any blank paper around) and write longhand. Better yet, get yourself a nice fountain pen or some other fancy pen, and some really classy paper — something that makes you want to write just for the feel of ink flowing onto paper. Or use a crappy pencil, I don’t care. It’s not like I have stock in any pen companies or anything. The point is, shift yourself into another mindset and see if that doesn’t help you.
  8. Change location: Instead of shifting your medium, shift your location — head out to a coffeeshop, library, biker bar, anywhere new to shake things up. We’ll grow to associate places where frustration occurs with the frustration itself — change your place, change the frustration.
  9. Read: I read books on writing and they never fail to fire me up, but read anything. Get your head into “language” mode, seeing and thinking in print. Let your mind wander away from your obsessive worrying about your writing, and 9 times out of 10, the ideas will just suddenly click into place. Run back to your computer and write them down and see where that takes you.
  10. Set short goals: A lot of times we get hung up on how long it’s going to take us to finish — so hung up, we can’t even start. So do this: set a timer for 3 minutes, and see how much you can write in three minutes. Write gibberish if you must, but if you can, stay focused and know that you can quit in 3 minutes. Or try writing just 5 sentences. Give yourself trivially easy goals that you can quickly accomplish, and see what happens. A lot of times, you’ll catch a groove even in those couple minutes and be able to keep on going until you’re done.

Once you get over the initial hump of just getting started, you’ll usually find that the words just start coming. They might not be the best words or even vaguely right words, but they’re words — let them come, then hunt them down mercilessly when you revise and edit.

What about you? Any tips you have for people battling the blank page and losing?

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