You know the feeling: when you’re tasked with writing an essay but don’t know where or how to start.
For some reason, you can’t put down a sentence without also hitting ‘delete’ every other second; the urge to self-nullify is crippling, intensified all the more by a post-pen and paper era of digital words that easy come, easy go.
How do you get over the fear of writing?
To answer this vexing, but not unsolvable, question, we must first examine the context in which the writing takes place:
For an English student with an hour to bang out an unseen A-Level commentary or an IB textual analysis, perhaps the idea of ‘fearing’ is a luxury in and of itself – there’s no time to think about fear, so just bleedin’ write. And don’t stop. (This isn’t what I would advise, as you’ll see later in this post, but it’s what I understand to be the average test-taking student’s state of mind)
If you contrast this with a journalist who’s been given a week to draft an article, or a novelist who’s been paid a handsome advance and working against a 9-month submission deadline, then this ‘blank page fear’ would look slightly different. That said, the struggle is real, universal and ever-present.
What, then, should we do when our minds draw a blank vis-a-vis the dreaded blank page, when it seems to taunt us with an unwritten invitation to soil it with ink (or type)?
Short-term blank page anxiety – tests and exams
Top tips: Prepare essay templates & ‘Sketch’ before you write
In general, there are three types of candidates in any exam hall:
1) The frantic scribblers
2) The frequent hand-raisers, and
3) The rest of us who are not annoying.
If you find yourself sandwiched between the first two types of people, know this: intimidating and ‘on it’ as these people may seem, the best students never rush to write, nor do they write more than is necessary, because rushing to write and writing too much are both signs of nervousness, which almost always lead to underperformance. Instead, choose to keep calm – and plan.
Take a deep breath.
Draw up tables.
List out bullet points.
Fake a hacking cough to distract your frantically scribbling neighbour (okay, maybe not this).
Remember: preparation is the name of the timed essay writing game, so make sure you have a few templates in mind for different essay types you may encounter in your exams (e.g. thesis-argument-counterargument for argumentative essays, exposition-rising action-climax-falling action-resolution for narrative essays etc.).
This may sound counterintuitive, but when the time comes for you to ‘start writing’, the first thing you should do is not write the actual essay, but rather, sketch an outline with columns for the different sections, categories, points and examples that you’ll be covering.
A standard example of an argumentative essay template could look like the following:
|Section||Main items to cover|
|Intro||– Thesis statement (what’s my view?)|
– Overview of essay (what do I hope to achieve in this essay?)
|Main body paragraphs (x 2 / 3) – arguments||– Topic sentence (what’s my main point?)|
– Evidence (what examples can I use to support my point?)
– Explanation (how do the examples relate to my point?)
|Main body paragraph – counterargument||– Topic sentence (what’s the opposing point?)|
– Evidence (what examples are in favour of the opposing point?)
– Explanation (how do the examples relate to the opposing point?)
|Conclusion||– Brief summary (what main idea did I convey in this essay, and how did I convey it?)|
– Impactful sign-off (what’s the wider significance of this essay topic?) [optional]
Make sure to keep your notes neat and discernible, too. Trust me, an extra minute well spent on crafting your plan will save you more than just a few minutes when it comes to the actual writing process.
Mid-term blank page anxiety – writing assignments
Top tips: Stagger the writing process & Set a disciplined schedule
Week- or month-long writing timelines can be optimal for those who appreciate some pre-writing thinking and reading time, but anathema for others who either can’t wait to get the essay done and over with, or need more than just a week or month to mull over an idea before translating it into written words.
Still, journalists seem to have mastered this skill for their livelihood, so there must be a method to the madness. The key, it appears, is to manage your writing timeline in a way that staggers the entire process in phases – from ideation, research, planning, to writing, editing, proofreading.
So divide your timeline into equal halves, then dedicate the first half to ideation, research, and planning, and the latter half to the actual writing, editing and proofreading.
I’ve come across students who use ‘brainstorm’ and ‘research’ as excuses for procrastination, so the way to prevent this is to brainstorm and research proactively by jotting down notes in a Google Doc or a pocket notebook whenever an idea comes to mind, or whenever you come across a pertinent, interesting reference in something you read.
This way, by the time you get to the writing stage, you won’t actually be faced with the terror of a blank page, because you’ll have collated materials and ingredients on your planning canvas for you to cook up your verbal concoction.
They key to mastering the mid-term blank page anxiety, then, is setting a clear schedule and exercising the discipline required to stick to it.
Long-term blank page anxiety – dissertations or long-form works (e.g. novels)
Top tips: Set realistic expectations & Find a writing buddy or review partner
Writing is hard enough in itself, so imagine the difficulty of having to write a lot – and to do it well. When it comes to lengthy writing projects, such as dissertations, research articles, or novels, the approach to dealing with that ‘blank page fear’ is somewhat less contoured than the ones I’ve proposed for both short-term and mid-term writing timelines.
While it’s equally, if not sometimes even more, important to have a clear plan and a disciplined schedule for longer writing timelines, the process of putting together a dissertation or a book has to be more organic, more forgiving, more human.
This is analogous, perhaps, to the trimesters of pregnancy; like the foetus, an idea must gestate before ultimately emerging as a work – or a life – complete.
And during this long, drawn-out process, there will be days when you lack compositional inspiration, but there’ll also be moments when epiphany strikes and the only thing you want to do is write. There will be fluctuations in productivity and mood which in turn catalyse and impede your progress – and that’s okay. If this causes anxiety, the best thing to do is to find a writing buddy or a confidante who can give you honest feedback, constructive advice and above all, judgment-free support.
Even the best writers in the world suffer from fear of the blank page, so know that you’re not alone. This is what John Steinbeck, arguably one of the best modern American authors, had to say about his own experience with the anxiety of writing:
“I pulled [my truck] into a small picnic area maintained by the state of Connecticut and got out my book of maps. And suddenly the United States became huge beyond belief and impossible ever to cross. I wondered how in hell I’d got myself mixed up in a project that couldn’t be carried out. It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing. So it was now, as I looked at the bright-colored projection of monster America.”
(From Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck)
Or read this article from The Millions blog, which explores the psychology behind the ‘thankless’ labour of writing.
Final pro tip
While reading for research or inspiration is always good, be careful not to let it hold you back from the actual writing. There’s a possibility that reading ‘too much’ could leave you intimidated (“Oh I could never write like that!”), or lazy (“Let me read another article, just another article… oooh this looks interesting, let me check it out…”).
Read what’s necessary for your purpose, then mobilise the discipline and self-control to start when you need to.
Message me here if you have a question about writing, or anything English-related!
4 thoughts on “How to overcome fear of the blank page in writing”
What a great post! Really well composed, I like that you’ve gone into great depths about writing different types of pieces. You’re right, you can get stuck reading about writing, I think the only way to push through an empty page is to start writing. We can edit later.
Thanks so much, Lorraine! And yes, sometimes it’s just about making that first leap…
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Thanks so much!