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Overcoming the Tyranny of the Blank Page

By Floyd Largent

As a writer, you’ve probably suffered through days when you just wanted to curl up under your desk because the words wouldn’t come. Writer’s block, we call it; it’s so pervasive that even non-writers know about it. It’s a painful and very real malady that can strike anyone who works with words, including editors, scriptwriters, and even cartoonists. It can be so debilitating you have to wonder how many Great American novels or film careers have died of it before they were even born.

But you can beat it if you refuse to back down.

In my experience, nothing cures writer’s block like a deadline. As a professional writer and editor, if I don’t hit a deadline, I might not get paid. Most clients are flexible in the face of illness or computer issues, but some assess penalties for late work. Worse, if you miss deadlines too often, you’ll lose clients and your clean reputation. In these days of electronic feedback that stays online forever, that damage can haunt you for years.

While you may not be paid to hit a deadline, you can still use the deadline method to convert your “want-tos” into reality. I recently watched a TED video in which the speaker pointed out that intentions don’t matter; you can mean to do this or that forever, but you won’t get it done until you invest the “activation energy” necessary to get started. In business terms, if you don’t stop thinking and start moving, you’ll experience the “paralysis of analysis.” I like to think of it as “vapor lock of the brain.”

So sit down and map out how to get from where you are now to your desired destination, whether that involves writing so many words per day or simply writing for a set amount of time. For years, the late Frederick Pohl turned out at least four pages of copy every single day, no matter what—whether it was Sunday, Thanksgiving, or he was giving the keynote speech at a fan convention. That’s basically a novel in two months. However you decide to overwhelm writer’s block, break down the problem into small, easily manageable chunks, set yourself milestones, and get to work. Keep your mind busy, your health good, and your energy up so you can more easily churn out the prose.

The tyranny of the blank page, of watching that cursor blink at you up there at the top of the screen, can be as draining as a day’s work in the hot sun. Even when you are writing but it doesn’t flow, when you feel like you’re pulling teeth just to get those angular patterns of meaning onto the page, the frustration soon becomes a living thing crawling through your brain, smothering ideas and shredding productivity. The solution? Keep powering through until you’re done, as unpleasant an experience as that may be.

To some, writing is always easy. Fantasist Andrew J. Offutt once joked that a bout of writer’s block was the worst 40 minutes of his life. Willie Nelson, like Mozart before him, has said that he’s surrounded by music and just picks a melody from the air. For us mere mortals, however, writing can be so daunting even for those who do it for a living that we sometimes just want to say, “No thanks, I gave at the office,” and roll over for another hour’s sleep.

So how do you avoid that?

One of the best ways I know is one I picked up from a newspaper columnist. Normally he wrote about outdoor sports like hunting and fishing, so it really caught my eye when he once devoted a column to how he reacted to writer’s block. He was always chasing a deadline, and couldn’t afford to struggle with block for days; so when confronted with it, he just typed “The” and kept on writing until something useful came out. It works. You can always cut the “practice writing,” though you may discover later that it’s not as bad as you thought.

Another way to avoid writer’s block is to know your subject so thoroughly the writing just flows. If you’ve done enough research, your subconscious will start arranging new ideas in your head and merging them with what you already know. Usually, it then transfers to the page easily. I’ve experienced this with both fiction and non-fiction writing, though it seems to work better with the latter.

Even if you’re writing fiction, don’t just make it up as you go along. Plot out the story, study your world, and do detailed character sketches so it’s easier to write. Often, straight research is also necessary. Although all of Dick Francis’s mysteries had something to do with horse-racing, however tangentially, he also had main characters who were bankers, glassblowers, restaurateurs, and wine shop owners. His research was thorough, and made his characters all the more believable.

Writers write; it’s as simple as that. When you let writer’s block win, you’re not a writer, you’re a wannabe who’s not going anywhere. So don’t let writer’s block redefine your reality. Take your vorpal sword in hand, and slay the manxome foe before it kills your productivity—especially if someone’s counting on you to have your writing in their hands by a certain date.

Keep writing!


Floyd Largent is a basic all-around generalist writer and content editor with more than 20 years of experience.

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