When You Must Write: 11 Tips For Conquering The Blank Page
We all have to write something at some time. Everybody writes, as Ann Handley says (a book I highly recommend).
It can be a work project or a resume, a book review or a business plan. Writing is a professional skill creatives and leaders must know how to do. For many, it's a huge percentage of the job.
The most formidable part of every writing project is the beginning. The blank page and that flashing cursor, mocking you. Daring you to write anything. Telling your soul, "If anything goes on this page, it's going to be crap. Don't do it, you writer of crap."
So where do we start? Because this is important.
I don't believe writer's block isn't actually a real thing, any more than I believe plumber's block is a real thing. (Probably a bad analogy. Plumbers do unblock things. But plumbers don't get mental blocks when it comes to getting their work done.) Fear to begin is real. The key to getting a writing project finished it to get it started. To get words on the page you can eventually edit, mold, and shape into something readable. Useful. Beautiful. Entertaining. Transformative.
But we must first have something to work with.
So here are 11 tips for getting your fingers moving and words on the page.
1. Make sure the input bucket is full.
This is my number one tip for starting this year's daily blog project. When I come to a day where ideas are scarce and I'm not sure what to say, I often realize the reason for a blank mind is not because of personal zen practices. It's because of lack of input. I have a few emergency books I grab for these emergency days (things like "The Leadership Challenge", "Deep Work", "Essentialism", and "The Inspirational Writings of CS Lewis"), but best practice is a scheduled, daily regimen of input. For me, this is a balance of current events, relevant books and blogs, and fiction. Input, take notes (see below about journals and commonplace books), reflect - and you'll never be without fresh ideas to explore.
2. For non-linear thinkers - Mind-map First
Actually, none of us are exclusively linear or non-linear in our thinking. We are all some combination of both. I find that I have linear and non-linear days. Not sure if that's weird or not. In any case, on non-linear days, I sometimes find mind-mapping to be a simple tool to get words on the page. This can be done digitally. I like Scapple - created by the Scrivener folks. Full disclosure, I love this company and would basically buy any product they come out with. But Scapple is completely worth spending a little cash on. There is now a version for both Mac and Windows.
I analog mind-map, as well (the reason I love Scapple is because of its analog-like versatility). I use 4x6 notecards and a designated desk for this. You can also a simple legal pad. I will write more about mind-mapping in another post.
3. For linear thinkers - Outline First
Some days, I want to get from point A to point Z in as straight of a line as possible. On such days, good, old-fashioned, outlining is the best tool. Sketching out the main talking/thinking points on a sheet of paper, or in a digital writing tool is the quickest way to move from blank-page to words-on-the-page. There are some fancy digital outlining tools available, but I've never found them to be that useful. For most of my purposes, it's using a jackhammer as a fly-swatter. I use Scrivener as an outlining tool for long-form writing (White papers, books, etc.) and my old faithful Byword for most everything else.
4. Go Analog
This is my secret weapon. If I'm completely stuck (or even a little stuck), I grab my Moleskine or a legal pad and a pen, I sit out on the back deck in the sun, and I start playing with words on pages. There is something about getting out of the digital pool and drying off in the analog world that sparks creativity and new ideas. Analog hits up other parts of the brain and often my creative neurons will fire with more clarity. The new ideas etched on physical, dead trees with black dye and thickening agents become something of a first draft. It's then simple to dive back into the digital pool for revisions. The analog world is one of the most creative places I know.
5. Free-write - as fast as you can
Free writing is a great tool for getting unstuck. The concept is simple. Get whatever is in your head onto the page. And do it as fast as you can without thinking. Sure, there will be a lot of garbage you'll have to cut later. But, at least there will be something on the page to edit. "You can't edit a blank page" is sage writing wisdom from when writing began in ancient Mesopotamia (I made that up. I don't know this actual history. But you get the point.) Try it. It does work. In fact, Julia Cameron suggests doing it every morning.
6. Set time limits
Another Jedi-Writer mind trick: set a 25-minute timer (or sometimes 50-minute - I don't usually go beyond this because the point is to compress the time) and hit "go". Now the pressure is on. I have to get this thing written before the alarm goes off. It often ends up as free writing, but the time limitation helps me get words on the page - which, again, is something to edit later. My day job requires a lot of conference calls/video conferences. If I have a project I'm stuck on, I often start 30 minutes before and set my deadline for when that conference call begins. It's amazing how much can be written in 30 minutes when the pressure is on. Even if (particularly if) it's self-applied.
7. Don't start at the beginning
Begin with what you know. The beauty of the digital pool is copy/cut/paste. You can always move things around later. Again, for long-form writing, Scrivener is an amazing tool for this. You can start your book at the end and move backward, or in the middle and build around it. It doesn't matter. You can change it later. Get words on the page and get the order right later. You don't have to start at the beginning and plow your way through in a straight line.
8. Write in a non-distracting environment
This should go without saying. But I can't tell you how many times I see people working on a project with every social media tab open in the background. You will stay stuck if that's how you work. Can I repeat that with emphasis? You will stay stuck if that's how you work. Shut it off. Don't check it. Use apps to block the entire freaking Internet, if you have to. Shut down and shut off the distractions. You're writing will improve, words will get on the page - and it will all happen much faster. I guarantee it.
9. Write to one person
"Who is my audience?" This is the first questions I ask before every writing project. Often times, I will then get into my head an avatar for my audience. It's often someone I know. For example - this article is being written with my son in mind. He does a blog about our current home town and I imagined him being stuck and asking Dad for advice (which he still does on occasion). If I were to give my writer son writing advice for getting words on an empty page. He has become the avatar. This helps with clarity. When my audience is clear, what I need to say becomes clear, as well.
10. Go Someplace
If you're a regular here, you know that the local coffee shop is my "someplace" of preference. But sometimes, taking the laptop outside or to the couch provides the necessary change in environment that turns the brain into a bastion of productivity. For me, a public place helps a lot - especially for new words. I'm not sure if it is a public place accountability thing, the background noise - or maybe just coffee. But when I'm stuck, grabbing the laptop (or a legal pad/Moleskine and a pen!) and getting to a coffee shop can make me insanely productive.
11. Keep an idea journal or "commonplace book"
Ryan Holiday's "Commonplace Book" article is one I read regularly. True confessions here: I'm on the front end of this one. It's not an ingrained discipline/habit. Yet. Since starting the daily blog, I've recognized the need for something like this as a regular part of my process. I've tried using my journal for this. This often becomes too cumbersome. Evernote is a good digital filing cabinet. But, I like the idea of an analog treasure trove of ideas. A swipe-file for when both the page and my mind is blank - and there's a deadline. A commonplace book is a great idea repository.
The blank page doesn't have to be terrifying. Do what you need to do to get fingers moving and words on the page.
Curious. What do you do to fight the blank page? Leave your tips in the comments.