Stop Staring at a Blank Page: 6 (Not So) Silly Writing Tips to Get Words on Paper
Imagine the first writer’s block. I recall a cartoon showing a caveman with a rudimentary stick staring at a large, blank rock.
Today’s equivalent of the blank rock may be a computer screen, and your process may seem like this:
When you sit down to write (and there’s a problem right there; you may not do well sitting down), do you find yourself with a sudden urge to clean out a file drawer? Throw in a load of laundry? Search the internet for ways to clean wine stains out of carpet? Check the refrigerator for the third time? Bake a cake instead?
You have something to say, but what’s holding you back? Let’s look at some simple writing techniques that could change your writing routine dramatically.
In the Groove — or Common Excuses for Eating an Entire Bag of Fritos
You’re either in the groove for writing, or you are not. Common excuses for not getting words on paper range from “I don’t know where to begin” to “What if my writing sucks?” and “I just don’t have time.”
If you have a story in you — say, your memoir that you’ve been mulling over in your head for a decade, or a bunch of characters and scenes in a legal thriller — those ideas are begging to be let out. Maybe you have a dining room table filled with research on the history of a concentration camp where your grandparents perished or piles of library books and overdue fines for a well-intentioned guide on pruning roses.
What is stopping you? Maybe you’re approaching the writing process all wrong.
What Kind of Writer Are You?
Earlier I mentioned sitting down at a computer and writing. Some people don’t do well sitting down, as if their brain shuts down the minute their behind hits the chair.
In my writing classes, I ask my students to consider this question: When you go somewhere new, do you prefer to tap the address into a smartphone GPS and hear the turn-by-turn directions? Or do you stop and ask directions? Or do you just want to see the map? Maybe you wing it and get lost before you stop and ask directions. Which technique do you use?
If you want to hear the directions, you are an audio learner. If you want to see the map, consider yourself a visual learner. And those who wing it would be considered kinesthetic learners.
Let’s translate that into writing techniques.
The I-Need-to-Hear-It Writer
The audio learner may well be an audio writer. You are easily distracted by sound. So the birds chirping outside take your attention away from the computer. The furnace clicking on and off, the clock ticking, the refrigerator cycling, a hum from somewhere — all distract your brain from the task at hand.
Audio writers are fascinated with sound, and we can harness that ability to help in the writing process because audio people are often magnificent storytellers. Capture those thoughts in words by dictating a story, a scene, a paragraph, a description of a crowded train station.
I recommend the Voice Memos on your iPhone and various speech-to-text apps like Speechy (free) and Dragon (paid) that turn your sounds into words. You then email those dictated files to your computer and have raw words on paper, so to speak, without keyboarding.
Another app called Rev captures sound/dictation and even conversation among two or more people. You send off the files to their transcribers and have written text within hours (for a fee based on per-minute recording). I’ve worked on memoirs written, rather dictated, entirely on Rev. I use Rev for interviews and oral histories too.
Your version of Word may already have speech-recognition software built in. All you need to do is get an external microphone (or headset) and talk to yourself. Use the Help feature and search text-to-speech for directions on finding this well-hidden bonus you may have right in front of you.
Desperate to just capture a thought and you either have no paper or pen or hands free to write? Phone yourself and leave yourself a voice message.
Another option is to tell your story to someone else, in an interview format. Use a recorder.
The I-Need-to-See-It Writer
The visual learner needs to see the big picture. These writers make outlines (outlines can turn into the book’s table of contents). They use index cards for ideas and shuffle them or lay them out on a table to visually see the story as it unfolds. Post-It notes do the same thing when placed on a board or table, as a storyboard. Others may simply draw out the plotline through time for each character.
Do you identify with this type of writer? I don’t know about a thousand words, but doodles and drawings can sometimes make the unclear clear, like when I was buying special nails for affixing new siding, and the associate was saying, “Blah blah blah,” (that’s what I heard until I asked him to draw a picture). Do you ever find yourself telling someone to “draw me a picture” or drawing one yourself?
The act of drawing will help you organize and “see” the story. A mind map, therefore, is you drawing a picture of your plot, your characters, your complete story, a chapter, a through line, a story arc. Your central theme is usually the center point, and the subplots or characters branch out from that main theme.
Oh, it’s like an outline. Yes, and even a tried-and-true outline is an ideal way to lay out your book (especially in nonfiction). Outlines don’t need to be elaborate or detailed, and you don’t need software, just a page of notebook paper. Mind maps can help you visual writers get started.
The Quirky Kinesthetic Writer
Neither visual or audio driven, the kinesthetic writer needs movement, which is why sitting down at a computer/laptop isn’t going to work well.
So stand up. Put your laptop on the kitchen counter. Take a walk and then come back and dump your brain onto paper.
We know the best ideas come when we are least expecting them. Thus the brain is tricked, during activity, to trigger a bright idea. Do you know the three most common scenarios for ideas to jump into your head (P.S.: Those ideas are already there.)? The answer is while sleeping, driving, or taking a bath/shower.
What is it about water? If you’re stuck for an idea, wash the dishes. Put your hands in water. Or take a bath. I go kayaking.
If those ideas pop into your head while driving, be sure to grab your dictation device and capture it. Or pull over and write it down.
Use the sleeping trigger to set your intention before you go to bed. Keep a paper and pen or smartphone dictation device handy so you can brain dump it the moment you awaken.
Some writers need to change their venues. That’s why we hear about prolific novelists such as William Kent Krueger thanking the staff in the coffee shops where he writes for allowing him to commandeer “booth #4” for far too long. Or Malcolm Gladwell who seeks out coffee shops when he travels, less for the brew and more for the right kind of distracting atmosphere.
Start at the Beginning — or Not
When you are wondering where to start, just jump in. Anywhere. Somewhere. And not necessarily at the beginning. Write what feels right at the moment without the pressure to start at the beginning.
People writing memoirs like to start at the beginning chronologically, and that’s fine to start with. But a smart editor can often see the big picture and move something life-defining to the opening chapter as a grabber for readers.
I recall editing a memoir about a police officer’s life on the street. He wrote it starting when he entered the police academy. In his final chapter, he told about how he shot and killed a drug dealer during an armed confrontation. What! That’s our opener. The officer-involved shooting was his career-defining moment. Everything he did in his career in vice and narcotics and undercover led up to this shooting.
Of course, we moved the shooting to the front and let that story unfold as he dipped back in time to pick up the police academy, busting prostitutes, doing undercover work in gambling, and making no-knock drug busts. The story had a fascinating twist that wrapped up the drug dealer story nicely, and that became the last chapter. (If you’re interested in true crime, this is Mark Langan’s award-winning book Busting Bad Guys.)
But the lesson here is that Langan started at the beginning because that was comfortable to him and left it up to the editor to help reorganize. Editors can truly deliver stunning content when you have it all there in the first place.
And then there’s perfectionism. A killer of ideas. The darling of procrastination.
Writing gurus say the words don’t come out right the first time. If you read just one book about writing, read Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird. She gives you permission to write a “shitty first draft.” So pound out the words. Somewhere in there, she says, you’ll find a nugget, a character, a phrase, a scene to salvage and improve. Don’t let a blank page stop you from pouring out the words. Better words come along later, in revision, because writing is rewriting.
My author Marilyn Coffey, a Great Plains writer like Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz but with a modern take, told me her secret for wordsmithing. Her book titles reflect that panache: That Punk, Jimmy Hoffa! and Thieves, Rascals, and Sore Losers are examples.
When I pressed her about her apparent gift for finding just the right word, she said with surprise, “Oh! I research them.”
On Google. No digging around in dictionaries or thesauruses.
“When I write, I don’t pay attention to the language, really. I just let it go out as it will [and she demonstrated with a flutter of fingers during my interview with her], and then, as I rewrite, I get into these questions of should I use, ‘The sky is blue,’ or should I say something else?” she said.
And on her Google search, how does she know when she finds the right word?
“It arrives.” Said with a flourish like a pianist to punctuate the thought.
Time Ticks Away
No time to write, that’s the excuse many writers give. Hog wash. If you’re a writer, you make time. You feel compelled to write. You awaken early and grab an hour before work or school. You say no to outside activities. You grab an hour here and two hours there.
Discipline is the watchword for writers. If you need a nudge, attend a writers’ retreat or conference. Read significant books about writing (not as procrastination but as research for your method). Attend a writing class at your community college, a lifelong learning opportunity, MOOC, or online course through Coursera. Listen to an audiobook series on writing. Go to an author event and ask how others find time and technique to write.
And then you won’t have any excuses for staring at a blank page.