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Beat Blank Page Syndrome: 10 Tricks to Get Your Writing Started

Beat Blank Page Syndrome: 10 Tricks to Get Your Writing Started
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?

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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.

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

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  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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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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