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Overcoming the writing freeze - facing the blank page!

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Facing the Blank Page

 

The Setting

Typically you sit down to write to fulfill a business or academic need, to share information, or to connect with a person.   You've been told to or just want to say something about a subject.  Some people write to get their own thoughts 'down on paper' to  literally look at them from a different angle.

But where to start?  

These pages offer some successful strategies for those times when you sit down to write and nothing comes into your mind.  

It's a lot easier than you think - click on any of the tabs to see for yourself. 

 



About the Author:
Roane Simkin has written professionally throughout her career in Technical Writing, Human Factors Engineering, Usability, and Business.  She has written SOWsRFPstechnical manuals, user guides, release notes, contracts, letters, essays, theses, research papers, stories, songs, shopping lists, tests (from both sides), e-mails, agendas, bylaws, web pages, and more.  These are the many strategies she uses when facing the blank page.

First Things First

 

1. Write down the purpose of the document first.  
As you write, your mind wanders - humans are great at association, which means distracting thoughts are part of the process.  

 

2. Do the readings!
Now that you know why you're writing, (re-)read the background material.  There's always background reading - someone else's letter, a calendar appointment, a class assignment, a phone message or an e-mail inquiry,  Address the point that was asked.

 

3. Think.
Really -  think. Ponder, percolate, peruse, muse. Put all the information together, and let your brain work on it.  This means NOT starting the day or the hour something has to be delivered.

Some writers claim they just "sit down and write" a poem, an essay, a story "in one sitting." If that's true, they are being literal.  They may have sat down and wrote it in one go, but they thought about it for countless hours before.  They let their brain put information together. 

You wouldn't say, "I'll build a desk" and just go do it right off.  You'd think about the wood, the size, the design, whether it needs drawers or shelves.  The same is true with everything you create - a meal, a message, an outfit.  Why am I doing this, how will I use it, what parts do I need? 

 

4. Seek Input.
It is the writer's responsibility to choose the words and the message, and to do the best they can with spelling and grammar.  Even professional writers have editors, and you should seek a trusted set of eyes as well.  

If you're new to writing, don't wait until you've done ALL the work to get input - let someone help you early on.  Find a tutor (free for MATC students!)  If the tutor gets carried away and starts writing 'for' you, ask them to stop.  The tutor knows how to write - the trick here is to help YOU gain that skill.

 Depending on your level of skill with writing, you may ask for input at different points in the process. 

Feedback may address what you are writing, the points you make, paragraph structure, making sure that you are addressing the problem as assigned.  As you gain ability, feedback may switch to helping you choose words more precisely, or help with rules of grammar and spelling. 

Feedback may also address the tone.  It is hard to hear your words in your head separate from your voice.  You know what you meant when you wrote that.  The question is does someone else get the same meaning out of the written word, when your voice is not what they hear? 

 

Fun Bits First


Find the Fun

Sometimes looking at that blank page just wipes out any thoughts you had in the front of your mind.  In the back of your mind lurks some part of the work you are looking forward to.  Even if you have to turn in specific parts, such as an Outline, or Rough Draft, the place to start may be with the fun parts!

If you want to write a speech about cooking, start with the parts you like best.  Maybe its talking about the ingredients, or the fun of measuring things out first.  Perhaps you want to tell a story about the recipe, where it came from, why its important to you.  This is the perfect application of the phrase, "Well begun is half done."  

Start with the fun parts, and the rest will fill in quickly.  The approach may even make the work more interesting to your audience.
 

A Miserable Challenge

If you hate the assignment, write it out sarcastically at first.  You'll feel better, get that venom out of your system, and probably be shocked at how much you wrote.  Once you have that done, take the negatives and edit them into affirmative statements:

You might start with:

"You've got to be kidding!  Another paper about Anna Karenina!  She was suicidal anyway, she just threw herself in front of a train to stick it to the people she felt didn't save her!"  

And from that, realize,:

"Anna Karenina did not simply kill herself over disappointment in love.  Rather, she was depressed throughout her life, being rejected socially, feeling tied to a loveless marriage, and not being brave enough to risk the safety of depression for potential happiness with her lover.  Unable to cope with the misery, unable to embrace happiness, she finds the only way out for herself."  

Well, there's the thesis - all that's left is to go through the story and find quotes that support it, point by point.

Start with the Easy Parts


What do you already know?

Successful writers don't start with the intro and write through to the end.  No one does, any more than you cook a meal by putting all the raw ingredients together in the order you'll eat them!

Similarly, you write in bits and pieces, edit those, rearrange them, fill in missing spots.  

So get started by writing what's easy.  Look at your goal, and where you think "I know that part!", write it down.  It may be the dates of a party, or the answer to a point you need to cover in a paper.  Maybe its the conclusion - the place you want to get to, the reason you're writing at all.  Later you'll work out the steps to get the reader to the place you want them.

Start by writing what you already know.

Outline - a Classic Approach


The Outline approach is especially useful for people who fine ~everything~ very interesting, and those who forget where they were going. Use Outlines to make sure you cover all your points, to maintain good organization, and to stick to the point.

On your blank piece of paper, write down a series of Roman Numerals, several lines apart:;

I.
II.
III.
IV.
V.
VI.

Then fill in the general sections you need to write to.

I.     Introduction with Thesis

II.    Major Point 1 (paragraph thesis statement)

III.   Major Point 2 (paragraph thesis statement)

IV.   Major Point 3 (paragraph thesis statement) 

V.    Conclusion with Forward Looking statement or Wrap-Up

VI.   Bibliography (where necessary)

Add sub-points & notes:

I.      Introduction with Thesis
        A. Assignment Points
       
B. My Arguable/Defendable Statement

II.    Major Point 1 (paragraph thesis statement)
 
       A. First Point from Thesis
        B. What Others Might Say
   
     C. My Point of View on This

III.   Major Point 2 (paragraph thesis statement)
 
       A. Second Point from Thesis
   
     B. The Opposing View
        C. My Point of View on This

IV.   Major Point 3 (paragraph thesis statement) 
 
       A. Third Point from Thesis
   
     B. A Point That Seems Relevant But Isn't
       C.  My Reasons for Saying That

V.    Conclusion with Forward Looking statement or Wrap-Up
 
       A. Echo Points from Previous Paragraphs
   
     B. Restate Why I Am Right!
        C. What This Means Looking Ahead

VI.    Bibliography (where necessary)


Take a mental step back, look it over, see if you missed anything. Start writing. Its okay to go back and adjust the outline as you write. Sometimes writing one section will reveal a point you should make, or that two sections are really quite similar.

Models or Templates

A high-level exercise in art and writing is to copy the style of a famous artist or author.

It is common to credit the source in these efforts, in part to protect against charges of plagiarism.  Two fun examples of this practice taken to the extreme are:
 "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (April 2009) by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
 "a mashup combining Jane Austen's classic 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice with elements of modern zombie fiction,"
 followed up the same year with
 "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monster" (September 2009) by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters.

The principle is simple - start with a piece you like in the style you need to produce, and start replacing words.  This is MUCH harder than it sounds for almost everyone, and if you stay too close to the original, you'd better add a note to the assignment, such as "written in the style of J. Lawrence Ferlinghetti" or "after the poem Constantly Risking Absurdity by J. Lawrence Ferlinghetti."

A series of examples based on this approach are found for the poem, To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, written in the 1600's.  The poem itself has been responded to in other poetry, and the opening phrase, "Had we but world enough, and time," has launched countless other stories, novels, and poems.  In fact, something ~so~ famous is often not cited or acknowledged in the work; it is assumed the readers will recognize the source.  As a student, do NOT make that mistake.  

ALWAYS cite your sources - even if the assignment is not a research paper!  A simple note on the end acknowledging your inspiration is a good way to ensure you are NOT charged with plagiarism!  (And may add depth to your work.)

Use a model written at your level of skill as a template. 

Be careful - copying a rhyming scheme is considered a 'nod' to the original; copying WORDS is plagiarism.  

When can you just copy the same words? When you use an existing document from the business you're in as a template. Using the same language over and over is okay - if YOU (or a company attorney) wrote it for the company - such as a standard contract, or hiring offer letter.  That is ASSUMED to be a 'form'.  YOUR classwork is assumed to be YOUR OWN.

Protect yourself - develop a habit of citing your resources!  Instructors will appreciate your noting, "tried to copy the style on p. 126 of the book" for an assignment.  This lets them know that you understood the material, and any similarity to the text was intentional.  Be SURE to USE YOUR OWN WORDS.

 

Questions Lead to Answers


Ask Questions.  Ask a lots of questions.  Write them down.

 

One way or another:

- Draw a line down the middle of the page, and write the questions on one side.
- Use two sheets of paper, questions on one, answers on the other.
- Type them in Word and insert the answers later.

Start asking relevant questions:

  1. Why do I have to do this?
    Get the frustration out there first.
     
  2. What questions does the assignment ask?
    Put each point or question on a separate line.
     
  3. What do I want to know?
    Anything about this that you have recently or need to look up.
     
  4. What do you already know?
    Some parts of this might already be in your mind.

Write out some answers.

It does not matter at first if the answers are helpful.  Just start writing; you'll find that eventually they will be.
Look up answers to questions that interest you.  Getting started is the point here.  One good answer is all
you need to lead you to more and more questions.

Sleep on It

 

Get started, get going, try these tricks, then give it some time.  

You can't write well without giving it some thought.  Let your brain do its thing while you take a walk or have a nap. Then go back to it and write some more.

You can't bake a cake without first deciding on the type, getting the ingredients together, preheating the oven, mixing the right amounts in the right sequence, and baking at the right temperature for the correct amount of time.  Writing is just like that - think about what you want to say, get the parts together, and then step back, think about it, sleep a bit, and see if you're ready to move forward.

Once you've written your piece, Sleep on It!  Don't just write something down and hand it in or send it off.  Look at it fresh in the morning, and simple errors will jump at you.  When you think its really good, ask someone else to look at it too.  The voice in your head doesn't always translate perfectly on paper, and you want someone to tell you if something doesn't make sense.

 

i imagine intricate images irridescent indelible icons intaglio intoned interior in ink intertwined - poem, from A New Alphabet copyright 2002 by Jeanie Dean.Word Play!

 

If you need to produce language, play with language.  
These games can be inspirational when you're sitting down to write.  
They're especially helpful for breaking writers block, when all the words
seem to swirl around as random letters in your brain, like a bad TV ad graphic.

 

Word Whomp!

Create as many words as you can from a six-letter word:
 - think: thin, ink, tin, nit, knit, kit, kin, hint, hit.
 - echoes: hoe, hoes, hose, chose echo, see, she, shoe.

Then create silly sentences and phrases from the word list:
 
Knit a hint in ink to think of thin kin.
 - She chose echoes to hoe her shoe hose.

 

Play word games online (Yahoo, Pogo) such as:
 - Boggle
 - Scrabble
 - Word Find
 - Word Whomp

 
Use alliteration (similar sounds) to create concepts containing common characters.

Letter V doodle, Francesco Cangiullo, "Letter V" - Caffè Concerto - Alfabeto a Sorpresa (Café-Chantant - Unexpected Alphabet), (1919)Draw a Picture

 

When words fail you, try pictures. Doodles help unlock the subconscious.

 

A collage of the subject, cutting from newspaper and magazine clippings, might make the material more tangible for you, and easier to write about.

If you're generally more visual and graphic than verbal, draw a picture or a three-frame comic of what you want to say.

Then tell us about your picture in words. Finally, go back and apply the framework of formal writing - thesis statements for each paragraph, use Word's spell-check to correct easy mistakes, etc.

 

Image: Francesco Cangiullo, "Letter V" - Caffè Concerto - Alfabeto a Sorpresa (Café-Chantant - Unexpected Alphabet), (1919)

Found 4/7/2015: http://archive.rhizome.org/artbase/22272/localweb/alphabetbodyhtm.htm

Chart It

These ideas are to help frame the material you will write about.  There are SO many ways to become inspired, but creating your own world is the secret behind successful writing.  Try one of these methods, whether you're stuck or not.

 

Map the Journey

Draw a map, flat at first, just circles and lines.  Put the main points of the material you will write about on the map, as islands, or streets, or highways.  Is this a sea voyage, a day hike, a city street?  Its your map, you get to pick the type.

Add features to your map - Islands of Content, Houses of points, Rivers of Ridicule to Ford.  Add color, voices, people, faces, sounds - whatever gets your subject to come to life for you.  If drawing is not your strength, imagine the map, let it unfold in your mind.

When you start writing, you'll have this map to guide you.  This is a great storytelling aid - how did you get from Point 1 to Point 2? Is Point 3 MUCH farther out - should there be a stop or a Point in between?  Did you start with a Sea Voyage map, and find your paper is really a simple City walk?

 

Flow Chart

Use standard flowchart symbols, for Start, Process, Stop, etc., or make up your own.  Either way, put down the main ideas and connect them with lines.  Maybe some of the points are recursive, leading back to earlier ones.  This will be reflected in your writing, as a theme in the paper.

Keep the focus high, if details occur to you, put them in a list next to the flow chart symbols, not in them. You want the flow chart labels to be just one or two words.

This is a great tool for choosing what you're going to include in a paper, and what you can leave out.

 

Chart Table

A moderately details map for writing in a table form.

Put the main points along the top row of the table, and numbers on the side.  (Excel is a good tool for building tables.)  In the left (first) column, enter the parts of the paragraphs: Thesis, Points, Discussion, Connection, Conclusion.  As things you want to say come to you, enter notes or full sentences in the table in the corresponding cell.  

Find content for the empty cells.  You might do some research or talking to your instructor or a mentor for help with some areas.  

This is a great way to move points around, easily put discussion with different points, or check if your conclusions follow from the things you actually put down, before you focus on grammar, spelling, and word choices.

Seek Inspiration

A lot of writing is boring to produce - its just necessary work.  Contracts,  RFPs (Request for Proposals), SOWs (Statements of Work) are right up there.  You have to remember to include every major point, every step, every right word.  Say what you mean,don't be cute.

Some writing is simply necessary, such as thank-you notes, formal invitations, quick reminders.  How to get started?

A lot of writing feels scary - you can say anything you want, but what do you say?  Essays, stories, poetry come to mind.  What do you want readers to understand?  How do you want them to feel?  How do you take them there?

To get started, look at excellent examples of what you want to accomplish.  Read things above your level of skill to learn, and inspire.  

Read a favorite poem, such as "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

...

The word "chortle" was created in this poem filled with nonsense words.  
Think of the language skill, to use non-words and still create such a strong image!

 

Talk to people about the task. Tell them what  thinking, and pay attention to their response.  Do they like it?  Do they have suggestions? 

Look at pictures related to the subject.  

Go for a walk in nature (take the dog!) and think about your subject.

If you're REALLY stuck getting started, give yourself 5 minutes, and if you haven't made a good start, force yourself to get up and do the 'other' thing you've been avoiding - laundry, the dishes, cleaning papers, exercising.  You'll feel better when that's done, you won't have 'wasted' the time, and you'll have one less worry - clearing the way for success at the writing task.  This works - EVERY time.  If it didn't, you didn't pick a nasty enough 'threat' task.  

(This works for insomnia, too! Tell yourself, "If I'm not asleep in 5 minutes, I have to get up and walk 1 mile."  If you're awake in 10 minutes?  Walk the mile! You'll come back rested, and tired.)

Fun Words

What are Fun Words?  They're interesting, emotional, unusual, funny-looking, appealing, odd, powerful.  They're words that catch your attention or just make you smile.  They often suggest a specific typeface, like 

Collect Fun Words.  

  • Words that make you smile: susurrus - whispering, murmuring, or rustling.
  • Words that express a strong sense or image: petrichor - the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil.
  • Words that challenge you: onomotopoeia - the formation of a word from the sound associated with it (hum, buzz).
  • Bazinga!  

Note Powerful Phrases  

  • Constantly risking absurdity / and death / 
    whenever he performs /
    above the heads / of his audience /
    the poet like an acrobat ...   
    (full text here)
     
  • Purple Squirrel
    You understand what it suggests as soon as you think, "that's absurd":
    I keep looking for jobs, but they are all looking for Purple Squirrels - a Machinist with a Culinary degree?

Choose Key Words

  • List the words that MUST be included in your writing, then consider how and where to place them
    Thank-you
    Milestone
    Success
    Autonomy
    Completion
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