The Blank Page: Some Writing Strategies

This post is dedicated to the intimidating blank space that is the first page of the yet untitled document which, at some point in time, is supposed to contain a well-argued, thoroughly researched, and original argument to stun your expecting reader. I’ve never been one of those people who is blessed with the ability to sit down, create a new document, and start typing the first draft of a research publication with the confident knowledge that once the words are on the page I can return to them as many times as I like to edit and refine. Instead, it takes me a long time to even sit down to write, and once I’ve done that there’s still various stages to go through and strategies to apply until I produce any substantial amount of words. Everyone has their own academic writing routines and tricks, so here are a few of mine, and I hope I can entice you to share some of yours!

HANDWRITTEN NOTES & PLANS | I absolutely can’t start typing until I’ve handwritten my thoughts and notes. That’s the way I figure out the preliminary scope of a piece and the structure of ithe argument. I find it impossible to put words on screen unless I have a plan on paper, usually in the form of a spider diagram or just a simple list whose items I connect with various arrows until I’ve figured out in what order they might make sense. I have a slight stationary addiction, so there’s a pile of beautiful notebooks waiting to be filled with ideas and thoughts. I handwrite every little idea or concern, from questions like “will this make sense” and “move this to introduction” to thoughts about a journal’s remit or suitability, and links to other pieces on which I may be wor king. Writing things in a notebook or on a notepad feels private, personal, informal, and safe, and that helps me to collate and shape my ideas in a way that I just can’t seem to recreate on a screen.

COPYING  QUOTATIONS | Another strategy  I can’t do without is the copying of any quotations I’ve highlighted in primary and secondary texts. I type them up into a document,  so that when I sit down to write I actually don’t face a blank page at all. According to the structure I’ve figured out, I’ll colour-code and then sort these quotations according to the theme or point to which they relate. Sometimes the copying of quotations precedes the note taking stage, and this means the quotations help me identify themes and the relationships between them. In my head, all I have to do afterwards is start writing sentences which incorporate and connect the material I want to analyse, and that thought really helps to take off the pressure. More often than not, I copy far too many quotations, of course, but for me that’s part of the thinking process. The majority of quotations will end up in the “scraps” document that corresponds to the article or chapter I’m writing. They’re there if I need them. If I don’t, then they’ve still had a key function in giving me an overview and understanding of the material with which I’m dealing. The fact that these documents are already filled with several thousand words – if only quotations – makes the task at hand seem much less daunting and monumental.

BLOGGING | Blogging has played a major part in helping me tackle my fear of writing. It doesn’t matter if I’m blogging about my research, teaching, or for The New Academic. Whatever I write for my blog is usually written swiftly and in one go, and – importantly – because I feel like it, because I have the impulse to write. Even once these short pieces are published, they can be edited if I (or you) find a typo, repetition, or clumsy phrase. The fact that they’re comparatively means I’m getting much more used to writing as an everyday activity, as something that’s not daunting, and that’s done quote simply out of the desire to communicate rather than because of any internal or external pressures. Writing online also brings with it, of course, immediate feedback and the ideas other people prompt and contribute. It’s a little like a virtual, written conference paper, without the travel, the cost, the pressure of preparing and presenting, and the sometimes awkward conversations over lunch and refreshments (though it’s needless to say those occasions bring their own benefits, especially as few things can replace actually meeting potential collaborators in person). Blogging can also act as a great way of thinking through materials, methodologies, or problems. It can be a virtual way to gather your thoughts – a more elaborate form of my handwritten notes, in a way. The first step is to remind yourself that you don’t need to write fully-formed, groundbreaking, prize-winning analyses. Sometimes it’s nice to record, share, or contextualise a particularly interesting item you’ve found in the archives, or a theory which you’re currently trying to think through but can’t quite get your head around yet.

So, that’s it, really. The rest is mainly comfort food. I treat writing like watching a film. I want to be comfy, excited, and have ice cream, popcorn, or marshmallows to hand, plus perhaps some caffeine. That’s more of a requirement than a strategy, though, something to make the tough, laborious periods a little more rewarding. And of course while all this is going on, my dogs and cats are usually lying somewhere nearby, ready to give me a high five when I’ve written that first paragraph, or eager to play and cuddle when I need to step away from the screen.