Weird (But Effective) Ways to Beat the Blank Page: Part 1

Some days, there’s nothing more paralyzing than the expanse of white paper or white Word document in front of you. The pressure! The expectations! The sheer nothingyetness of it! The unbroken marble monotony of the blank page has made me cower and back away from it many, many times.

We retreat because, hey, our Facebook feed is never blank. Buzzfeed is never blank. Twitter’s always hopping. It feels safer to shrink into those pre-filled spaces, comfortable inside other people’s imaginations. But you can win the war against that awful blank page feeling and get started painlessly, without anxiety. Here are 5 slightly unconventional strategies.

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5. Talk it out and record it.

Your smartphone, if you have one, is a powerful ally in the fight against blank pages—as long as you plan ahead. When you know you’re going to be facing a blank page in the near future, take a few moments to bring your topic to mind. As you’re bringing it to the surface, bring your phone to eye level, open up a new SMS message, Evernote or Sticky Note, hold the Record button, and start talking.

That’s right. I said start talking. Commit to yammering about the topic for 30 seconds straight (believe it or not, you can get out a lot of words in that time). When you’re done, take the text that results (even if there are a few transcription errors) and transfer it to the top of your Word document, or copy it down onto your notebook paper. If you’ve got a real bad case of the blank page blahs, double-space it.

4. Fill the blank page with a doodle—in pencil

Doodling helps me think, by occupying the annoying, busybody parts of my brain the same way a new video game suddenly captures the attention of a group of 9-year-old boys. To kick the blank page blahs, doodle in pencil on your first page. Don’t just draw little squiggles and frowny faces. Doodle big. Doodle larger than life. Doodle a picture of your pencil, doodle the outfit your main character is wearing, doodle your sleeping cat curled in your lap, your coffee cup, an ouroboros dragon (my go-to; don’t ask why), just doodle lightly, in pencil.

When you’re done doodling, pick up a pen and look at your page again. It’s no longer blank. When you fill the page, erase the drawings. Or don’t.

Annnd back to work.
Annnd back to work.

3. Never underestimate the power of a well-placed coffee ring.

One of my favorite apps (iOS and Android) is called Do It Tomorrow. It’s basically a to-do list with an easy button for flipping the to-do task from Today to Tomorrow (it’s the perfect list for procrastinators).Crucially, the “pages” in the Do It Tomorrow app all feature a coffee ring stain in the lower right-hand corner. Why this helps cure me of the blank-page blahs, I don’t know, but it does. And besides, a coffee ring is the universal symbol—a textual secret handshake, if you will—of the working writer.

2.  Make a mini mind map.

Mind-mapping is a popular way for creatives to catalogue and organize ideas into cohesive trains of thought. Used in disciplines as wide-ranging and diverse as advertising, technical writing, business analysis, creative writing and journalism, a mind map is a powerful tool for organizing your thoughts.

So how can that be useful for tackling a blank page? Well, do a mini mind map. Mark out a section of paper (I like to divide it down the middle, from top to bottom) and write out your mind map on one half. As you’re mapping, periodically switch to the other side of the paper and write out sentences.

To create mind maps digitally, use this excellent Lifehacker list to pick the best software for you.

1. Freewrite first, then start the work on the same page.

Freewriting is a comfortable way to get the writing juices flowing, and it’s also a conveniently unintimidating way to fill a blank page. So, to fill THE blank page, freewrite first, then stop yourself about halfway or two-thirds of the way down the page. Don’t draw a line, don’t even start a new sentence (unless you want to). Just start the WRITING. Try not to slip out of your mental freewriting groove, but do start saying what you need to say. If you hit a roadblock, just transition back to freewriting. (Take a highlighter and color in the parts you want to keep, so you don’t lose your place.)