The hardest part of writing is facing a blank page. Whether it’s a plain sheet of lined paper in a notebook or the blinking cursor on your computer, there is something difficult about getting that first word down.
It’s true whether I’m writing my monthly column for Island Parent magazine, a blog post on how to build a swing or the start of a short story. It’s not exactly fear, more of a feeling of being stuck. I can have a complete paragraph by paragraph outline, yet facing the blank page will still fill me with uncertainty.
Where the fear of the blank page comes from
Though I have a background in psychology and neuroscience, I definitely don’t know why so many writers struggle to get those first few words written. However, I do have a few theories.
Fear of the unknown
Humans like certainty. Fear of facing the unknown is a natural and biological cause of stress. Though most of our unknowns these days are due to social interactions and not a fear of being attacked by a sabre-tooth tiger, it doesn’t change the nature of that natural tendency.
Starting a new piece of writing is full of unknowns: Is the topic interesting? Timely? Will I be able to capture my readers’ attention? Do I have enough to say on the topic? What if it’s all just a waste of time? These are all valid concerns… and certainly, make a new writing project difficult.
Fear of Failure
There’s a bunch of research on how fear of failure is related to a Fixed Mindset learning style. If the goal of a writing project is a successful outcome then a blank page holds a tremendous amount of pressure. It will prove whether you are a good writer or a bad writer.
Luckily, education systems are moving towards fostering a Growth Mindset learning style. This means that Max and Una are encouraged for their effort, not the learning outcome. If the point of a blank page is just to write a story, then the writing process itself becomes the goal.
Techniques to avoid “Writer’s Block”
I have to face a blank page at least 3 times a week. I write two brand new blog posts every week and often a magazine article. If I’m in the writing portion of my fiction work, then I face a blank page every morning. Even if I left off the day before halfway through a chapter, getting started the next morning feels like I’m beginning anew.
Here are some strategies that I have developed to get me over the hump.
1. Have a time restriction on your writing period
I only write during my kids’ school hours. When they’re at home, I can only work on social media, photography and non-writing work. I also know that my brain can only write for about three hours a day without feeling a bit fried. (Unless I’m super inspired then, I barely stop writing, but that doesn’t usually happen when I’m writing about making pie.)
Having only a short work period means that I HAVE TO sit down and get the work done. I don’t have time to watch cat videos or read articles on the Royal family. I HAVE TO write.
NaNoWriMo is another way to force a time restriction on your writing.
2. Start in the middle
If I’m really feeling stuck then starting anywhere is better than not starting at all. Why not write the easy part first.
- This is how I write all of my food articles. I start with the recipe, then figure out what else I want to say about it.
- If I have a scene in a story that is really clear and in focus, I start with that, then go back to figure out how to get the reader to that scene.
3. Follow your inspiration
Always take advantage of inspiration. It’s the best part of writing!
If I’m feeling inspired to write about a topic, then I just go with it, even if it’s not on my editorial schedule. Even if I’m supposed to be working on something else. All of my favourite blog posts are written this way. And most of my vivid scenes are fuelled by inspiration.
4. Skip the procrastination edit
When I was in University, the only time I ever cleaned my bathtub was when I was supposed to be studying for my final exams. The bathtub most certainly needed to be cleaned… but I was just procrastinating.
Early editing is a bit like that. It is so tempting to edit what you wrote the day before… and it probably does need editing. However, it’s a classic form of procrastination.
This is especially true for writing fiction or creative non-fiction. The most efficient way to edit is AFTER you’ve finished the whole book. Only then will you truly know how the story needs to be edited. Some characters might be removed. Whole scenes might need to be rewritten…. you just don’t know until the very end. Any early editing is more about procrastination than efficiency.
5. Use distraction
Using distraction is a healthy way to turn off that self-doubting inner voice. It’s a lot healthier than using alcohol or drugs. And it’s quite a bit healthier than using sleep-deprivation.
I will admit that when I’m really caught in a piece of fiction, waking up at 3 am and writing is sometimes the only way to get through it. However, for day-to-day purposes, it’s better to distract myself by writing in a noisy coffee shop or at the beach.