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How To Beat The Blank Page of Doom

Sometimes when I write blog posts I know what I want to say but struggle with how to say it. Do you ever have that problem? I guess it is partly due to my perfectionism, and maybe kind of down to my now infamous “analysis paralysis”. There are just so many times I can rewrite the start of a post before the post gets too late to publish!

Here is my approach for combating this affliction. It is not perfect by any means but hopefully you guys can help me improve upon it.

  • Know what you are going to say – The most important thing to remember is that you need to have formulated what you are going to write about before you can write it. Some of my posts evolve but they always have a core message that I am trying to get across. Work this out before sitting at the scary blank screen from hell.
  • Have a point, just one – This isn’t so much a rule but more a tip, it is easier to write a post about one key point than more complicated multi-point articles.
  • Write your title – I leave my title to the end here, in fact usually Nick writes them – he is so much better at it than me, elsewhere though I am on my own so spend a lot of effort (not always effort that shows) on getting headlines right. They can attract the majority of your readers but also help in the writing of the post itself.
  • Beginning, Middle, End – Recall what you learned at school, you need an introduction, something to tease the reader to keep reading, then you need to make your point and summarise at the end.
  • Imagine a virtual reader – I find it helps to articulate what I need to say by imagining someone at the other end. What do they need to hear? What parts need explaining? Will they find it interesting the way I am presenting it? Do I need to be funny here?
  • Use an outline – Sometimes I write posts as bullet points then rewrite as paragraphs, other times I leave them as bullets. I find outlines very useful for structuring my posts especially as I have a really bad memory.
  • Write it out as an email – If you have difficulty starting the actual writing you might find it easier to write it out as an email to your friend. A lot of people go into “formal thesis” mode when writing that they would never do in an email. While an email and a blog post are not identical, it will help you get the information across in a more relaxed way. You might find there are less changes necessary between email and post than you expect.
  • Call a friend – The act of explaining what you need to do can be enough to break the back of it, but also a friendly conversation about the topic can bring out a lot of unexpected and interesting angles. Some of my best posts here have been after discussing the subject with Nick.
  • Tell the cat, ornament or a rubber toy –  This will sound daft but try it, it works. Just like telling a friend can help sort out your issue in your own mind it even works with inanimate or uninterested objects and pets. Because you have to make sense of a problem in your own mind in order to explain it to someone else you do not even need a reply, just to articulate it. The best name for this I have heard is “Rubberducking“. I usually tell my friend Bender the robot my problems. He doesn’t care.
  • Just get it out of your system – Just write, get it out of your head. Pump it onto the page as a stream of conciousness. Some people find editing much easier than writing.
  • Edit Edit Edit – Don’t expect to get it right first time, you can edit until you have it the best you can make it.
  • Walk away – If you find you are spending too long on it then you will get brain cramp. Walk away, get some fresh air, make some tea. In fact I recommend this regardless, I find I can improve whatever I do with some time away from it if you have the opportunity.
  • Read it back, aloud – The written word and the spoken word can be quite different beasts, strange thing is a lot of us actually silently vocalise in our minds as we read. If there are any awkward passages that trip up our minds tongue it can be very off-putting. Reading your content aloud can overcome this, highlighting places to make edits and making the final work easier to digest.
  • Post it and move on – At the end it is worth remembering you are not aiming for a Pulitzer, just a great blog post. Rather than agonising until the cows come home, get it as good as you can make it, post it up and move on to the next one.

As I say above I am pretty much an “agonise until the cows come home” kind of guy myself, I know what it is like. These points and tips work for me though usually so I hope you find some use out of them.

Do you ever suffer from the “blank page of doom”? Please do share your own advice in the comments.

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Author: Chris Garrett

Chris Garrett is a content marketing and blogging coach and co-author of the Problogger Book with Darren Rowse.

16 thoughts on “How To Beat The Blank Page of Doom

  1. Try this, make a decision beforehand that you are going to make it a draft. You will not post it for at least one day before publishing it. That way, no pressure, no worries, no hassle, just a draft, no big deal. I find the save as draft feature is a terific way to sidestep the BPOD for some reason.

  2. @Howtobewebsmart: Did you by any chance read that in one of William Zinsser’s books, particularly “On Writing Well”? I think he was quoting another writer, and said something to this effect:

    When you’re finished writing a draft, cross out every other word. If the article doesn’t make sense anymore, add some words back.

    That’s the way I used to write, but every once in awhile, I forget to do that and get verbose. Which is of course the opposite problem of what Chris is saying

    @Chris: Another method I use very successfully to break the blank page is as follows. I write a one- or two-sentence summary of what I want to discuss, then move on to another article, or to my RSS feed browsing. For each article that sparks interest in me, I write a brief summary and move on.

    As soon as I get inspired, I go back to article #1 (or whatever) and start writing. I’ve talked about this method here at Perf b4. It helps that I’ve been using it for years, and is the reason why I’ll work on 6-10 articles simultaneously.

    Because of this method, I’m almost never stumped, and it’s why I’m currently posting 45+ fairly length articles per week, for pay or otherwise. (Not including my 7 e-paintings per week.)

  3. Always try to cut your original writing in half. It sounds very difficult, and it is. However, I’m convinced in the ADD age of the Internet, the shorter your posts, the better.

  4. @Raj: You’re right 🙂 If you are trained in creating Mind Maps it’s the easiest way to collect thoughts and organize them in different streams in main branches by just shoveling them around with the mouse.

    So you are talking about the meta level of organizing things and I am talking about reaching an efficient deadline for an article 🙂

    Real example: You plan to write a series of articles about one subject but you are starring at the blank page and don’t know how how to start. That’s a perfect example where a Mind Map can help to create content and also not to forget content (for the series).

  5. @Markus: You’re right. What I meant was, if you have too many related ideas, a mind map lets you organize your thoughts to make you realize that you may have more than one article. Too many bloggers (myself overwhelmingly included) want to write about too many things in a single post.

    Mindmapping would help you see that. But for a single post, no. (I guess my problem is that I tend to work on 6-10 articles at the same time. Hence why mindmapping works for me.)

  6. Re. Mind Maps … I have used mind mapping as a creative brainstorming technique for a very long time. I am still fascinated how easy it is to break down a complex subject into small items. Mind Maps are absolutely brilliant i.e. if you are planning an emergency setup for a company or you have a complex project/concept to keep together.

    In the case of writing a single article Mind Maps don’t help too much but create irritation instead. The reason for that irritation is that writing an article is a linear process (from the beginning until the end). An outline which is also linear (!) helps much more and the process of filling paragraphs is more helping to get the end result.

    To create a linear document – like an article – from a ‘free’ Mind Map creates additional work. This way you have an additional step in the process of writing to overcome.

    Mind Maps are great for creating editorial workflows – basically great for everything which is pretty abstract and needs visualization.

  7. Some good ideas, thanks guys. I had forgotten about mind maps Raj, I tend to see them as a brainstorming or “note taking”/revision tool but I expect they would work for this really well.

  8. I ~loathe~ blank pages. The trick I use is to start with a previously-written finished document. It really doesn’t matter whether the material is related to the current document or not. Or even if the style/audience/medium is the same.

    Pick a paragraph, any paragraph. Rewrite it to make one point on the current topic.

    Rinse and repeat until done.

    Delete all the remaining paragraphs from the original document, if any.

    Rewrite the title.

    Publish.

    You’re done. 🙂

  9. Mind maps always break through a mind block for me. The problem sometimes isn’t not knowing what to write but where to start. Too many ideas? If they’re related, a mind map helps you organize them, and might spark some ideas.

  10. In my 20 years as a copywriter, I’ve often faced the Blank Page of Doom. And occasionally even beaten it.

    It would be nice if I could haul out a nifty trick that works every time, but I typically rely on two key techniques (interestingly, both were mentioned above).

    First, if you can talk about it with clarity and coherence, then you can probably write it. If you can’t verbalize it, then you probably haven’t whittled your concept down to its core.

    In other cases, consider constructing a mini-outline. Keep the ideas tight. And the bullet points brutally simple. It’s not art, it’s a framework, so don’t wax poetic.

    Typically, you’ll discover several concepts whirling around where only one should be. Keep whittling away, and you’ll do away with any schizophrenic thinking.

    Good luck. And happy blogging.

  11. For me an outline helps most.

    If I am doing research PFF helps a lot because I drag & drop the research result into PFF and edit the collected content later by adding my text. That’s like an outline made of links and quotes.

  12. That’s a good way of thinking about it, yes it could well be your idea isn’t fully formed enough to share.

  13. I have a very simple rule of thumb when it comes to writing:

    “If you can’t put the words right, it’s not worth writing”

    When I have sat down for hours, writing, rethinking, rewriting, rearranging, struggling with my thoughts and my words, I have learn that it’s a sign that what I write is too premature to share with others. Lost time? No! I did think, write and digest the information and my thoughts. It’s just not ready yet for sharing with others.

    Frank.

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