The Dreaded Blank Page Doesn't Get Any Less Dreadful After Six Books

There is no superpower for overcoming the inertia of a blank page. I stared at this page for a minute before writing the first line. During that minute, I thought of three other things I could be doing.

Despite having published six books and dozens of articles, I still dread opening a new document and getting to work on something new. This is true even when I am beginning chapter 6 after just finishing chapter 5. It seems the dreaded blank page never gets easier.

It helps me to know that I am in good company. Terry Pratchett has likened the beginning of the writing process to mobilizing a train with 100 cars. The engine shudders and gasps and pours steam out of its ears as its wheels begin to creep forward. But once it gets going--well, I'm sure you've seen the sort of damage that a train can do. Kurt Vonnegut described the blank sheet of paper as rich with possibility. There is purity in the unmolested page. Black marks are blemishes. Unless of course those black marks are the right sorts of marks, and you have arranged them in a satisfying way. But that's a whole lot of pressure.

Strategies for Dealing with the Blank Page

Here are a few strategies for minimizing your amount of wall-to-forehead contact time when starting your next writing project. 

1. Excuse Imperfections

This is easier to say than it is to do. The reader will recall how, a few lines ago I, was paralyzed as I sat down to write this essay. This happened even though I had in mind to excuse any imperfections. "Yes, but I want it to be good," was what I was thinking. That, and, I suppose, "I don't want it to take all day." 

I try to remind myself that the first draft will read like it was written by my six-year-old nephew. The second draft will read like it was written by my 10-year-old niece. And so on. If I am patient, then what started as garbage (no offense, Brooks) will eventually sing.

Vonnegut agreed. He said he often had days where he felt like his words had been written by a man named Philboyd Studge. I feel that way, too. But thinking of Philboyd Studge helps me to not take the process so seriously. Elsewhere, Vonnegut writes, 
As a writer, I share a problem, perhaps you could call it a tragedy, with most human beings: a tendency to lose contact with my own intelligence. It's almost as if there were a layer of fat upon the part of us that thinks and it's the writer's job to hack through and discover what is inside. So often it's this belief, or some such belief, that keeps me going after a day when I've been at it for hours and am dissatisfied with what I've produced. But I do keep at it and, if I'm patient, a nice egg-shaped idea emerges and I can tell my intelligence has gotten through. It's a slow process, though, and an annoying one, because you have to sit still so long. (Pity the Reader, p. 163)
I now enjoy the revision process more than the writing process, because that is where my ideas start to come together. Not to mention it is much easier to open a 5,000-word document than it is to open a blank page.

2. Use an Outline

I have written a few books by beginning with outlines. I have observed that I am more flexible with myself when filling an outline than I am with writing the introduction to a chapter, for example. At the top of the outline I write the tentative book title. This takes care of the blank page. The first chapter is usually called "introduction," which I can write despite having no idea of what the introduction might include. These are freebies. Then, using stream-of-consciousness, I begin listing topics that seem to fall beneath the title I have chosen. And so on. 

Eventually I have 10-15 possible sub-topics. I stare at these until one of them suggests that it could be broken down further. These become chapter headings. If I have any interesting ideas to include, I write them down. Because it is an outline, I don't worry about grammar or punctuation or any of that. 

Within an hour or two I have 2000 words. Talk about bulldozing through the blank page! The volume is owed to not having to bother with tying ideas together. 

Once the outline becomes too long to easily jump from one section to the next, I feel it is time to break the outline into individual chapter documents (although I have once written a 35K word monograph using the outline technique). None of the chapter documents are blank pages, because each has already been extensively outlined.

3. Write about Anything

The final strategy is for serious cases of writer's block, which I've never experienced. But, if I ever did, then I would remind myself that sometimes the engine just needs to get moving, and I would write about what I had for breakfast that morning. Doing so, I will realize that I have not suffered a left-hemisphere stroke. It will also dirty up the page.