How I learned to stop worrying and love a blank page

May 12, 2012

By Leo Valiquette

(Reader’s Note: Post first published on Francis Moran and Associates)

As a student of the written word, I’ve dealt with just about everything when it comes to catering to a client, managing a team of journalists and editing the work of others.

But the greatest challenge is often found in the mocking white glare of an empty page.

Writing is one of those skills that only gets better with practice. Reading examples of great writing with a critical eye, heeding the wise counsel of quality reference material and, most importantly, appreciating the value of a good editor, are all fundamental to honing your craft.

As with anything, becoming a good writer is a longer and more painful journey for some than it is for others. I often encounter people who are far more eloquent and articulate orators than I am. And yet, they run into a wall when asked to say the same thing in print. There is a certain thoughtless spontaneity with speech that is lost when confronted by a blank page. It isn’t that they don’t know what to say, they just don’t know where to begin.

But those of us who write for a living also find ourselves daunted by a blank page, or, even worse, with such a volume of material and research we’ve lost sight of the forest for the trees. Nonetheless, the job still needs to get done by deadline.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for making the words move. This isn’t about writing better or even writing for a specific audience. It’s just about writing, period, whether it’s for personal, professional or journalistic purposes.

1. Don’t think about it, just do it

Write down the first thing that comes to your head, followed by the second, and the third. Before you know it, you’ll have written a few paragraphs that will have dimmed the glare of that empty page. Is it great writing? Who cares? As Ernest Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” It’s a start and that’s what matters. It’s easier to revise than it is to draft.

2. Don’t try to write the beginning first

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you wrote the first thing that came into your head, you probably didn’t write what should be the beginning of your work. I write 3,000-word magazine features all the time by banging out the first 800 words in a rush. Next day I’ll come back, rip what I’ve done to pieces and then get down to the good stuff. It’s a creative enema that often needs to be part of the process.

3. Give yourself time to play around

That means you can’t leave things to the last minute. Whenever possible, bang out a rough draft of your work and let it lie fallow for at least a couple of days before coming back to it. The outcome will always be better than if you tried to go from zero to final finished product in one go, or even in one day. (Of course, I’m breaking this rule myself right now with this post.)

4. Start with somebody else’s words

It could be a quote from a source, an anecdote or an interesting statistic. These are all icebreakers that give you a place to start. Follow that first line up with an explanation of what it means and why it is significant.

5. Start with an outline

This is particularly useful for those situations where you may feel overwhelmed by your volume of material. An outline helps you to organize your thoughts as well as your material and distinguish the useful from the irrelevant.

6. A full belly and an empty bowel

Seriously. Nothing is more distracting than snack time rumbles or the outcome of last night’s dinner overstaying its welcome. Bob Bailly wrote a great piece for us a while back on how our systems tick on ultradian rhythms and the need for regular pit stops and refuelling.

7. The value of idle distraction

Maybe it’s toying with a stress ball, clicking a pen or listening to the soundtrack for Lord of the Rings. We all have those things we do that help put us in that almost meditative creative state. The key thing is that is something you can do without getting up from the computer. Otherwise, you risk falling prey to all those other external distractions that will sap your productivity.

8. Change the scene

Sometimes, nothing gets the creative juices flowing faster than a change of scenery. Grab the laptop, get up and take a walk to a local coffee shop or a branch of the public library.

9. Start fresh

The morning, when you are fresh and alert, is often the best time to tackle a writing project. Try to ignore the inbox and the voicemail and focus. From a productivity standpoint, it is often better to keep to the desk in the morning and save meetings and conference calls for the afternoon.

10. Know when to walk way

And by the same token, sometimes you should leave to tomorrow what you could do today. I’ve often found myself late in the day or in the evening trying to get a head start on something when the creative drive just isn’t there anymore. Often, I’ve produced far better material and in a far shorter time by leaving it to the following morning.

What would you add to this list?

Image: Cindy Thomas

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