Wrestling with the Blank Page

Zoe Donovan, Writing Consultant

One of the most daunting things to a writer or student is the blank page. While thinking on the topic of this specific blog post I found myself paralyzed by choice. “A short blog about writing” could mean anything. I started writing, erased the first line, started over. Editing as a I went, I found myself held back from what the point of this was, that I was getting caught up in the minutiae of writing instead of actually writing.

 I am, of course, being somewhat hyperbolic in the above paragraph, but it isn’t far off from my experience engaging with past and current writing projects. We tend to get caught up in the sentence we are constructing rather than the point of the piece.  

I find that taking a step back from that detail-oriented nature can do more good than letting an inner editor take over constantly. Instead, try to focus on getting something on the page. Prohibit yourself from using the backspace, repeat your points and repeat yourself in different ways. This type of repetition can be monotonous in a final draft, but a mock-up first draft can provide a writer with options when returning to the piece.

Then, once you have created something, step back, make a cup of tea, meander over your thoughts. Take the evening, day or week. Then use this piece that is what I lovingly refer to as a “word explosion” to create an outline and reorganize your thoughts. Returning to it with a fresh head can prevent you from becoming fatigued over a specific project or idea. From there, you can make edits, rewrite sections, omit unnecessary information, reorganize your thoughts, and fully flesh out points in your future drafts.

It is impossible to edit a blank document. Good writing takes multiple attempts, revisions, and proofreading. Half the battle is getting something on the page. In addition to this, it is exceptionally difficult to fully edit an unfinished piece, because you don’t know what additional context you need to provide, you can’t know how to transition into or from a paragraph or idea that you don’t yet have on the page.

Silencing my inner editor during my initial draft has become my go-to in the last few years. In the past, I have often been struck with choice paralysis or perfectionist desire. I feel that every piece I put out should be perfect as soon as it first hits the page. This is not a healthy or productive writing strategy. It creates this false narrative in early writers, (and late writers) that revision is not a key step in the process.

Instead, your first draft should be passionate. Why does this matter to you, why is it important that it is said, and what is your evidence to further support these claims? Writing is about growth, about changing the way the audience sees something or approaches a topic. Along that same vein, writing is process in which you can discover yourself and your arguments about a piece.

If you’re constantly dissecting every word or sentence you put on the page, then you can become overwhelmed and lose the motivation to continue writing. Instead, just focus on getting words on the page. They don’t need to be good. They don’t need to be ready for publication or submission–get your thoughts down without hesitation and with total freedom to put whatever you want. This early draft isn’t what you are sending in, it is for you and you alone as the writer to better understand yourself, your process, and your approach to this particular piece you are writing.

I know this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be something that works for writers who struggle with starting. I find that in my own writing, starting with a loose thesis works best. You can always come back to the thesis and make it stronger, or, if after writing you decide that the evidence you’re presenting doesn’t fit, then there’s no harm in returning to the drawing board on your thesis statement. Revisit your writing, what are you trying to accomplish in your stream of consciousness? Hone in on those points and fully articulate them. If you can argue it in a fully-fledged piece, then don’t be afraid to change it and make it your own.

Shutting off that critic side of your brain and just putting words on the page in a stream of consciousness style can help to create a framework for yourself during the writing process. You might discover that your initial thesis doesn’t quite fit, that a certain piece of evidence doesn’t hold as much weight as you originally thought or that you need additional information or research to fully set your argument. Giving yourself and piece a space to grow without an internal critic can lead you down a path that may be different from your initial intent and provide you a better understanding of your argument.

While it is important to be critical of your own work and edit that work, within the writing process that internal criticism can detrimental and create a sort of choice paralysis and inhibit us from actually engaging within the writing process. So, instead I encourage you write your first drafts like no one is watching and shut out the editor.   

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