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Conquer the blank page and make writer's block a thing of the past

By Dave Jagodowski
June 24, 2022

Conquer the blank page and make writer's block a thing of the past

Writing anything inevitably begins with throwing a headful of ideas at a blank page. Physiologically speaking, the process of writing is extremely taxing on the brain, so if you find writing difficult, there’s a good reason.

In this article, I share how my brain contends with a blank page and reveal strategies that can help you overcome your own writing struggles.

Sometimes writing can make your brain hurt. Here’s why.

In “What part of the brain controls handwriting,” Jaimar Tuarez describes the neurowriting system and reveals, “Writing requires the use of all brain structures working in a joint and coordinated manner—structures associated with thought, language and memory.”

The article goes on to tell how all four lobes of the brain (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital) are involved in the writing process. If you’ve ever worked on a group project before, you can begin to see the problem: to write anything, a lot of different parts of your brain need to get together on the same page. Literally.

That article prompted me to evaluate my own brain to see if I could capture what goes on up there when I write. (Note: Your brain may be different. In fact, pray it is.)

But first off, let me clarify the type of writing. This is not sitting in a hammock chair amid warm tropical breezes tapping out the great American novel. I’m talking about business writing—the kind that comes with deadlines, standards, pressure, and the promise of criticism.

If you already have a methodology that works for you, such as writing out a list of bulleted topics you want to address, do it. Anything you can get on paper right away gives you a great advantage.

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Step into my mind

When I’m confronted with a deadline and a blank page, I feel both challenged and pressured. I experience a lot of anxiety around getting that first sentence down perfectly to properly establish the tone, voice, and direction of the piece.

This is where a well-functioning brain really benefits from staying calm and rational, remembering that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect.

This is also where I learned that I don’t have one of those.

While I’m not a neuroscientist, I believe my mental process goes more like this: Neurons begin flashing wildly to the beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” A mysterious gland in my brain begins secreting hormones to equip my mind and fingers for the task ahead. Respiration increases. Neurons send electrical messages to my fingers (still on beat): “Fill! The! Page! … Fill! The! Page!”

Welcome to my world!

Writer’s block

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, I believe a writer’s brain abhors a blank page and will start filling it with random gibberish when good copy isn’t readily extractable from the surrounding gray matter. This mental state is known as “writer’s block.”

When writer’s block seems insurmountable, I’ve found my brain enacts a few different strategies to sidestep it. There’s what I call “writing for the sake of writing”a tactic that involves free associating around your subject matter (if only to comfort your brain and reestablish that you know something).

This is a statistical approach to writing based firmly on the premise that as long as your fingers are moving, there’s a chance you’ll produce something of value. (Yes, I’m sayin’ there’s a chance.)

Another strategy is what I call “the write-around.” This is the writing equivalent of asking your mad crush out on a first date. Your brain 100% knows the task at hand, but the words are stacked up inside and refusing to flow.

Take a deep breath. Start by flirting around your subject and making small talk with your keyboard—even incomplete sentences. Often, just getting your fingers moving will effectuate some muscle memory, restore confidence, and help you segue back to the topic.

As long as you’re writing, the right words will eventually come.

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This is the way

Whatever your brain does to get past the blank page, understand that this is writing. You’ve got four brain lobes bandying about knowledge, thoughts, memories, and sensations like they’re in a beach volleyball matchup. Let them play, and as the more cogent ideas get spiked into your consciousness, let your fingers fly.

This is a necessary and important process because it gets you past that mental block and into a better headspace. As you see the glaring white page transition into a monochrome mosaic of letters, something wonderful starts to happen. You start taking control—making decisions, choosing directions, and connecting dots. Those pulsating neurons in your brain begin to relax, the noise settles, and suddenly Queen starts to sound more like Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.”

Now that you have some solid ideas on paper (and a great flugelhorn solo in your head), begin to develop them. Identify your main ideas, organize them logically, then expound until you’ve covered all your talking points.

As you connect your thoughts, make sure sentences flow naturally and adjacent paragraphs sit nicely atop each other with no abrupt subject changes. Be cautious about deleting too much at this stage. I often cut/paste my “orphaned copy” to the bottom of my document in case I find a home for it later.

When you finally get all the words arranged into a cohesive piece of work, take your right hand and lay it over your left shoulder. Pat repeatedly.

Congratulations, it’s a first draft.

In an upcoming blog, I’ll talk about strategies to help you get from the first draft to the final “ready for prime-time” version. Until then… write on!