(Photo credit: patrickforephotography.com)
A sheet of parchment and a quill loaded with murky black ink. A page of quality writing paper with a fountain pen poised over it. A sheet of paper perfectly lined up in a typewriter, ready for the hammering of the keys to begin. A ‘new document’ on your laptop with the cursor flashing steadily in the top left-hand corner.
For a writer, all of these are an invitation to do the thing they enjoy … telling a story. Or are they?
Is that blank page instead loaded with expectation and demand that causes the writer anxiety and worry, to the point where it remains a blank page for far too long?
For me, a blank page can be an opportunity, but it can also be an unmerciful challenge, and none moreso than when there is the weight of professional expectation attached to it.
To get over this, I’ve learnt a few practical tactics that at least get something onto the page, even if it’s not a presentable draft. Getting some black onto the white page is enough of a start to quell the anxiety of that stark blank page.
The world is flat.
Or ‘Pink is the new black.’ Or ‘Quantitative research has a place in design research.’
Regardless of what you are trying to claim, the important thing is to claim something and say that clearly. It may be something controversial, it may be something completely subjective, or it may be something you can argue a very strong and perhaps even educational case for.
To help guide my writing, I start with that one claim and put it in bold, capitals, italics, underlined 24pt font at the top of the page. Maybe that’s excessive, but the point is that I make it clear and obvious to myself what I am going to say in the piece that I’m writing. And by keeping it to one sentence, it keeps me focussed. For example, for this piece, that sentence was ‘there are some practical things you can do to get over the ‘blank page anxiety’ when writing a blog post’. It’s not the title I ended up with, but it is the message I wanted to convey.
A funny thing happened on the way to the office.
Naturally we want what we are writing to be read widely and appreciated. But we have very little control over that. We most likely won’t even know many of our readers, let alone know how to write to engage them.
I can’t write for people I don’t know. But I can write for those that I do know. I can write with my friends, workmates, family members, etc. in mind. For the most part, I will have some idea of how much they know about a subject, and how I need to present what I am saying in order for them to take away the message that I’m trying to impart.
It’s not exactly telling them about the funny thing that happened on the way to the office, but it’s still telling them a story about something. I write that story as I would tell it in person.
Listen to me write.
Often, it’s useful to actually tell that story in person and then write it afterwards. Sometimes the requirement already lends itself well to this approach – writing a blog post about a presentation or talk I’ve given means that there is usually already material prepared, possibly even a script, and in most cases there is also a recording of the delivery of that script. It may not be in a written format, but the delivery of that talk can effectively serve as the first draft of your written piece. All you need to do is transcribe it; there are several transcription applications that can easily deliver a text version of a recording.
Even if you haven’t delivered the talk to an audience and there is no presentation per se, it is still an effective option to talk to someone and tell the story to them that you want to relay in your writing, recording yourself as you tell it. Again a transcription application can convert that recording to text and you’ll have a first draft of your written piece to work with, having completely avoided the dreaded blank page start.
Sometimes just starting to tell the story verbally is challenging. How many times have you uttered the words ‘I don’t know where to begin!’? That’s where being a researcher by trade is useful – we specialise in asking questions – but it’s something that anyone can do, if you nab someone who’s interested and willing to help you out.
Tell them what you want to talk about, give them permission to ask any question at all that they like (there’s no such thing as a stupid question), and in recording and transcribing the chat, you’ll have a text which can serve as your first draft, ready to edit.
Customise … Word Count … OFF!
While a word count limit or requirement can be useful to keep a final draft from being overly long, or indeed too short, at the stage of writing your first draft it can be more of a hindrance than a help. A word count requirement of 1000 words might as well be 1,000,000 words when you can’t even get the opening sentence onto paper.
Thankfully counting the words on a handwritten draft is more bother than it’s worth, and that word count in the corner of the screen on your laptop can also be turned off very easily. Turn it off until at least the third draft and that pressure is instantly lifted.
While these tips are all useful, perhaps the most useful thing to remember is that not all masterpieces were first drafts, and not all writing needs to be a masterpiece. You just need to tell a story, whether it’s fact, fiction, or somewhere in between.