The cursor blinks like it’s accusing you of not being a writer, not being able to communicate with the written word. Oh, if only you were in front of a group of people, you’d have no trouble chatting and getting to the topic you want to discuss. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable on stage, before a mic’d podium, with throngs of faces watching you with anticipation. Maybe you’d thrive there.
But there’s something about a blank page, about that cursor waiting with the same expectation as that sea of quiet and open faces that causes your whole system to go into deer-in-headlights mode.
As a teacher, part of my job—and when it works, it’s one of those beautiful eureka moments that I live to witness—is to help my students get their ideas out of their head. Many of my students confuse the struggle of penning their thoughts with not having ideas, or not having good ideas. One of the most common questions my composition students come to me with is: How do I draft?
Here’s the thing about drafting—it should never be your first step in the writing process. Let’s step back for a moment to think about that process and where drafting fits in.
A common cause of blank-page anxiety is impostor syndrome. But before we get into that discussion, let’s take a quick tour of the writing process, step by step.
The first step of the writing process doesn’t actually involve writing anything down—it’s a thinking step. This step is ideation. This is where you think of what you want to write about. Maybe you even brainstorm a little.
When I brainstorm, I make a mess. I get a sheet of paper and write down every idea that pops into my head—good, bad, or mediocre. (Hint: This also helps me feel better about writing a bad draft later on. No idea is useless.) If I don’t feel like making lists that fill the page, sometimes I use mini sticky notes or note cards and spread them out all over the wall or floor. This involves movement, which gets blood flowing to my brain to help me think.
After that, you’re going to move onto research. Now, you might not have to do research in the academic sense, but you probably have to gather some sort of information (unless you know a topic so well you can just riff about it—but then the blank page won’t seem so scary). While most of my students write nonfiction, this applies to fiction writers, too. For example, in addition to teaching, I also write historical fiction. I couldn’t world-build without research.
Once you have all your ideas and information, you’re ready for the planning stage. This is when you outline, mind map, bullet list, and pace around your home or office dictating how you might like to discuss your information.
If I’m writing a novel or short story, I draw out my plot and jot down notes on what’s happening to and with my characters along the way. For nonfiction, I create a mind map and then translate that into an outline on-screen. In both of these approaches, I start off-screen, away from that pesky cursor.
Then, and only then, is it time to draft. By this point, the blinking cursor should start to feel more like an invitation than an accusation, but if you suffer from impostor syndrome (more on this soon), there might be some additional tools you need in your kit.
Incidentally, after drafting comes editing (you improve your text on a macro level, then a micro level), and proofreading (check for typos and grammatical snafus). So, as you can see, drafting really kicks off the second half of the writing process.
Let’s define some of these terms.
Macro editing is when you look at the piece from a bird’s-eye point of view. This is when you move paragraphs, delete chapters, or approach an idea from a different angle. Micro editing is when you hone your text at the sentence level.
Once you’ve completed this process, it’s time to enter the next stage: submitting. After you’ve submitted your writing, others join you to potentially repeat some steps of the writing process. This is another time when anxiety can manifest. It’s easy to feel like whomever you’re submitting your writing to—a supervisor, an editor, an agent, even a family member or friend—might look it over and tell you it’s wrong.
For many writers, it’s that moment that triggers the fear of the blank page.
There’s been so much hype placed on the right to call yourself a writer that impostor syndrome runs rampant in the writing community. Even famous authors like Neil Gaiman have talked about suffering from this condition.
Impostor syndrome is the feeling that at any minute, someone is going to call you out for not having the chops to do what you’re doing—in this case, writing. For many writers, this is where fear of the blank page really stems from. Many confuse it with writer’s block, but if you have ideas flowing, you’re not blocked.
Here’s the thing about being a writer: If you write, you’re a writer. Seems simple, doesn’t it?
Mind, you might not be a particularly skilled writer (yet), and your draft might—and probably will—be awful. But this is okay. The thing to keep in mind is this:
If you write, you’re a writer.
We all have the right to write. It’s kind of like the “Anyone can cook” motto from the movie Ratatouille. Anyone can write. That means you.
The tricky thing about impostor syndrome though is one blog post might not extinguish it. Keep reading to pick up some handy tools on what to do to conquer the blank page.
When impostor syndrome strikes, when that cursor laughs at your supposed inability to string words together, there are things you can do to show that cursor who’s boss.
The first thing to remember is that introductions are hard. Often, they’re the hardest piece to write. They were always the last thing I wrote in academic papers, and even in stories, the intro or first chapter/prologue is always what I revise the most, and always after I’ve finished writing the whole story.
Here’s what I advise my students: Just start with your thesis statement.
It acts like an outline of the paper, so if they plop that in at the top, it can help them begin to write. If they’ve kept up with their work, they should have a thesis statement before they’re even ready to draft.
But you’re probably not writing a school essay, so go back to your planning work and flesh out your central argument. Ignore the blinking cursor. What was your main point? How did you want to present or prove it? Paste that information in at the top of your draft.
The benefits of this are twofold: Not only do you have your main point to reference with ease, but you no longer have a completely blank page.
Then, skip your intro for now. Write the body of your piece. What are your main points? How are you backing up these points? If you have to, start out by making lists for each point. You can go back and turn them into sentences later.
Write your conclusion next. Bring all your main points together and restate your argument. Leave the reader with something to think about.
Let’s say you’re writing a business memo about productivity. Pretend your business has suffered lately and you’re writing to inspire your employees to be more productive—while informing them that certain sites will now be restricted from work terminals.
At the end, you might ask a rhetorical question such as, “How many hours a day do you spend on social media?” You don’t need each reader to answer this question; you just want them to think. That’s time they’re taking from their work, from the company. It’s technically theft of time. But it’s less engaging to tell them this—and it can be a little accusatory in tone—than to encourage them to think.
Finally, when you have the body fleshed out and the conclusion drafted, go back and put your introduction together.
There have been some situations where students have told me the above method didn’t really cut it for them. Some of them don’t like to write the intro last. Others have trouble getting into the meat of their text.
When this happens, I suggest to them having a conversation and taping it. Let the person you’re talking to know you’re taping the conversation (no Watergate situations, please!) and why. Then, transcribe what you said into your draft and work with molding the text from there.
Remember what I said about your first draft potentially being less than good? Well, that’s okay! Take this article, for example. After I came up with the idea, I sought information (like where I talked about the fabulous Neil Gaiman), then I planned it. After I drafted it, I submitted it to Craft Your Content.
What happens next is an in-depth editorial process that includes several rounds of back and forth between me and the Craft Your Content team. The final article you’re reading might be quite different from my draft, and that’s okay.
You can draft. I give you permission to write a horrible, stinking, cross-out-with-red-pen worthy draft. If drafts had to be perfect the first time around, there’d be no such thing as first drafts and rough drafts. The writing process would be four steps long instead of six.
If you write, you are a writer. So give yourself permission to write badly and tell that blinking cursor to stop being so judgmental.
Go forth and write, writer.
Margaret is an author, English professor, and writing coach. She holds an MFA in fiction and an MA in English and creative writing. Margaret has been writing professionally since 2008, including many years in the digital marketing sphere. Visit mcnelliswrites.com to learn more about Margaret’s work. You can also find Margaret on Twitter @mcnelliswrites.