Five Tips for Overcoming Blank Screen Anxiety

alexwassonAlex Wasson, Consultant

For many writers, the angry blinking cursor on a blank Microsoft Word document is one of the most intimidating barriers to overcome in the writing process. The flashing cursor is like the ticking of a clock, reminding writers of a deadline fast approaching. And the blank screen mocks what we writers fear most: that we have nothing to say.

Entering the drafting stage of writing a paper is a daunting challenge for even the most experienced writers, regardless of the length and the theme of the assignment. You are not alone if you have put off getting on the computer until the last possible minute, acutely aware of the blank document hovering on your screen. You are not alone if your writing is so burdened by the anxiety of self-doubt that starting the process seems impossible. If this difficulty with the beginning of the writing process is familiar to you, there is absolutely hope; our papers, more often than not, are completed and submitted. But how can we make the beginning stage of the drafting process a bit easier on ourselves?

As it is the time of the semester for blinking cursors and blank screens, here are five tips for overcoming the anxiety that often accompanies typing the first words in the drafting process.

Write Down Anything

Writing “chicken salad chicken salad chicken salad” or other non-related gibberish at the top of the Word document may be just the trick your mind needs to believe that you are making strides in the assignment. I always begin my drafting process by writing the complete heading on my first page so that I can see something on the screen other than white space. Sometimes I write a nonsensical story to fill up space (often about my dog) and unconsciously transition into writing that is more on-topic. Write down whatever comes to mind, and eventually you will find yourself in the “zone” and able to hone in on the topic at hand.

Begin with Pencil and Paper

Avoid the blank screen altogether by doodling and jotting down notes on a piece of paper. A piece of paper often seems less confrontational than a computer, and the ability to scribble in a nonlinear, abstract fashion may inspire an out-of-the-box introduction for your essay. Once you have something written down on paper, revisit the computer and type in your notes to get rid of that blank screen.

Talk to a Friend

Chatting about your topic with a friend can inspire new ideas and strategies for getting started on your assignment, especially if you are more comfortable speaking aloud than writing. If you are like me and forget immediately what you say aloud, record your conversation on your phone and then transcribe the conversation. The typed transcription will defeat the blank page and give you a good start on a draft. Can’t find anyone willing to have a conversation about 16th century baroque architecture or the economic implications of raising minimum wage? The writing center is the perfect resource for you.

Write Everything You Know about Your Topic

For longer assignments, typing everything you know about your topic may not be feasible. But for the 3-5 page paper, a bullet point list of what you understand about your topic can provide a good sense of direction for a paper that seems impossible to begin. These points might just encompass the heart of your paper, and they also help you assess just how well you understand your topic in the first place.

Write it Backwards

Don’t know how to start a paper? It’s important to keep in mind that a paper does not have to be written in order from introduction to conclusion. It may be helpful to start at the end, what you want your audience to take away from your paper, and work your way back to the introduction. You may be very confident writing a particular section of the body paragraphs but unsure of how to get started with an introduction; if so, start writing where you are most comfortable and return to the introduction after you get a better understanding of where you want your paper to go. Beginning the drafting process in the section where you are most comfortable will build confidence and prepare you for the more difficult sections ahead.

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