Tips for Overcoming Blank Page Syndrome

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It can be scary and intimidating to start something new, especially a new writing project. What winds up happening is you stare at the blank page, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of it all. Many writers are afraid they won’t be able to fill the page with the right words to tell their story. Others fear not having an interesting story to tell. What if it all comes out wrong?

But you can take comfort in the fact that many writers and creatives have faced blank pages (or empty computer screens) for centuries, and they somehow manage to overcome their fear of it.

In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp writes: “The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: filling this empty space constitutes my identity.”

Though Tharp writes from a dancer’s perspective, what she says resonates with many writers. It’s our job and our calling to fill up empty spaces with our creativity, whether that comes in the form of words, dancing, or musical notes. In her mind, the empty space is not to be feared. It’s simply the starting point of the creative process.

When you begin to view the blank page as the starting point of your creative project, then you are less likely to feel intimidated by it. Rather than fearing it, writers should embrace it. The blank page represents endless possibilities for creation. It’s a positive energy, not a negative one. Don’t let the blank page weigh you down. Embrace it as an old friend, one who supports you in your creative endeavors.

The experts at Masterclass define blank page syndrome as writer’s block. So naturally, the best way to deal with blank page syndrome is the same way you do for writer’s block. There are several reasons writers feel intimidated when they face blank pages.

1. Writers fear exposing too much of themselves. It’s always scary to put yourself “out there.” Writing is an expression of your identity. Every time you put words down on the page, you are connecting with yourself in some way, whether it’s a memory, a fantasy, a heartache, or a desire. You can’t always hide behind your words. The prospect of revealing parts of yourself frightens writers. But without those deeply felt emotions and personal experiences, writers wouldn’t be the people that they are. Sometimes the only way to deal with the harshest realities of your existence is to write about it.

2. Writers expect perfection from their prose. They want the words to flow on the page in perfect harmony. They want the words to say precisely what they want to say with no mistakes. Writers have a vision of how they want the story to start and end, but when the words come out, all they see is junk. When you expect so much from yourself at the start of the writing project, it can put you in a form of paralysis. You wind up staring at the page instead.

To overcome these unrealistic expectations of perfection, try satisficing it – that’s combining satisfying and sacrifice, according to the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Just put down a reasonable solution to start the ball rolling. Anything will do – notes, phrases, even diagrams. Then make a note to come back and fix it later.

3. Writers fear the endless possibilities that blank pages represent. When you stare at a blank page or screen, you’re faced with endless possibilities for storytelling. Should you write an essay or a short story? Maybe you might try your hand at poetry instead? There are numerous possible ways to fill that empty space.

Some people feel confused and overwhelmed when they consider all the possibilities ahead of them. They feel overwhelmed by the open-ended book facing them. These writers are the type of people who need everything spelled out for them, and they look around for a handbook of sorts with step-by-step instructions on how to navigate those endless possibilities.

Others embrace the future, even though it may look fuzzy and uncertain. They see the future as an adventure, and the world – as wide and mysterious as it is – is something to explore. They welcome the endless possibilities of the blank page because they know that it’s a forum for their creativity. Since they want their creative expression shown in whatever way possible, the blank page doesn’t frighten them.

Which writer do you want to be: the one who welcomes those endless possibilities and sees opportunity in them, or are you the person who needs a guide to show you the way? Do you recognize yourself in either of these scenarios? 

4. Writers lack vision for the end product. Because anything is possible with the blank page, some writers may not have a clear idea what to write. There are so many things they could write about so it’s difficult to know which idea will work best. If you lack vision of your end product, if you have no clue what to write about, step away from the page. Set aside time to brainstorm ideas. Jot down as many of them as you can think of. Use a favorite prompt. I find that the prompt “I remember,” works well for me.

Also try freewriting – writing nonstop for five or ten minutes. You never know what ideas spring forth from that exercise. Once you have a general story idea in mind (or several), you may feel less anxious about the blank page.

Yet another technique shared by Masterclass experts is starting at a different point in your story, such as the middle or the ending. Sometimes it helps to work backward to the beginning when you’re unsure how to begin. The important point is to keep writing. It is only by writing a little every day that you’ll figure out how to overcome that blank page.

The blank page or computer screen doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Take Twyla Tharp’s word for it, and welcome the blank page as your friend. See it for that friend who takes your hand and helps you face endless creative possibilities with courage and conviction.

Is Perfectionism Undermining Your Writing?

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Are you the type of writer who has to keep editing your work-in-progress because you believe it’s never good enough? Is your waste basket overflowing with crumpled pages because you thought the opening of your story was garbage? Are you afraid to show your work to others because you think it isn’t good enough to be shown?

If this sounds like you, read on.  

As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you that striving for perfection is overrated. Perfection is a goal you can never achieve. Instead, it might be more beneficial to strive for excellence.

How do you define ‘perfection’?

Why is perfectionism unhealthy? “Because it’s a vague standard,” writes Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice blog. No one really understands what it means. It also can zap the fun and enjoyment out of writing, Reid says.

Try this exercise. On a sheet of paper, write your definition of perfection. What does a perfect piece of writing look like? How does it feel when you read it?

I’m willing to bet that once you attempt to define it or draw a picture of perfection that you realize there is no satisfactory definition. Whatever concept you come up with is likely to be fuzzy and indefinite. That’s because the concept of perfection is vague and subjective. No two people will draw the same picture of it or define it the same way.

How perfectionism holds you back

To understand how perfectionism may be holding you back, ask yourself: what drives your need to be perfect? Is it to please that person from your past who was overly critical of your efforts? Even if they’re no longer around, their words may ring in your ears. If so, stop looking at yourself through their eyes, and envision yourself as the writer you want to be.

Or perhaps you want to emulate the success of a particular acquaintance whose work you have always admired. Gosh, you think, I’d love to write just like them. But each time you sit down to write, the words come out all wrong. You keep starting your piece over and over because it doesn’t read like anything so-and-so would write. If this sounds like you, stop comparing yourself to others. You will always come out second best.

The truth is perfection is an illusion. Perfection doesn’t exist except in your own psyche and imagination. Nobody is born perfect, nor can it be achieved with hard work and talent. Stop killing yourself to be something you’re not. Further, you will never write like anyone else, so stop trying. Instead, forge your own path on your own terms.

How to work with your perfectionist tendencies

If perfectionism is interfering with your writing efforts, it’s time to take control of it (rather than allow it to control you). There are ways to work around perfectionism in your writing. Here are a few suggestions:

* Use freewriting to get into the flow of writing. Every morning before you begin your day, write for five or ten minutes without stopping. Allow the ideas to flow from your brain to your pen, no matter what they are. Don’t stop to judge or critique them. Just keep your pen to the paper and don’t lift it up until your timer goes off. You may surprise yourself at how much you are able to write in a short amount of time.

* Acknowledge that your piece isn’t perfect – and publish it anyway. Be willing to publish your work even if it isn’t perfect, says Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog.  Every author has published stuff that they knew wasn’t perfect. That’s actually good news for the rest of us toiling away on our masterpieces. It means your writing only has to be publishable, a more modest goal.  

* Name your critic. In fact, put a face to them too. Identify the one person whose voice you hear when you critique your work, Penn says. Acknowledge their presence, then quickly and swiftly banish them from your work space. Once those critics are out of the picture – and out of your head – you can reclaim your space so you can write more freely.

* Recognize that no writer is perfect. Every writer struggles with self-doubt at times. You are not alone in the way you feel. This is especially true if you’re new to writing. Realize that your initial efforts will not be very good. That’s okay, because you are learning along the way. But by writing every day, or as often as possible, your writing will improve.

* If you struggle with over-editing your pieces out of fear that your work isn’t perfect, try putting a cap on your editing passes. For example, I give myself three revision passes for my projects. Three revisions is more than enough to help me figure out where my story is headed and whether it worth pursuing further. If that doesn’t work for you, have a trusted friend or colleague review your work with you so you stay on track.

* Remember that first drafts always stink. They’re never very good, but you can still find a few nuggets of good writing within them. Think of first drafts as brain dumps – the process of dumping the overload of ideas piling up inside your brain. Use the best ideas for your stories, then discard the rest.

Remember that perfectionism can hurt you more than help you. So do what you can to release your deeply-felt need to be perfect before it derails your writing dream.