The blank page is your friend

There is a lot of advice for writers, and while some of it varies in approach there are also some ideas which seem to be universally accepted.

One of these ideas is the fear of the blank page.

So you’ll hear things like, “just write without thinking too much, build up the word count, and then you can edit later and you won’t be faced with a blank page.”

It seems to be generally accepted that the blank page is a dreadful thing, and this has been repeated so often, by so many people, that nobody seems to question whether or not it’s true.

But it’s never a good thing to have an unquestioned assumption which is used as a justification for something else.

Personally, I don’t find a blank page particularly frightening. Sometimes I might find it difficult to get started, but the blank page isn’t the problem.

The problem is finding a starting point by deciding what to say first. If you solve that, the blank page problem disappears.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but by focusing on the more fundamental problem, your attention is directed towards creating something of value, rather than avoiding some abstract, poorly defined fear.

As a writer, you will face blank pages every day. So you can either build your writing strategy around an irrational fear of an essential medium for your work, or you can try to get comfortable with it. The latter, surely, is a more confident approach.

It’s time we writers got over this collective fear. The blank page is your friend.

It will hold your words for you when they are ready. It will be forever patient, and when one is full another will be waiting to serve you.

Many will argue that you should still get words down quickly without thinking too much. Even if it’s not very good writing, you at least have something to work with and you can then edit it into shape. Again, this is almost ubiquitous advice repeated without question.

But there is a potential problem with this approach. It seems to trivialise the editing process and underestimate just how much effort and concentration it takes to clarify your thoughts.

If you have a single idea, it can take quite a lot of time and work to find the words to express it clearly. Sometimes it’s really difficult to write a single sentence if the idea you want to express is complicated or subtle.

So if a single sentence can be difficult, imagine what it’s like when you’ve written 10,000 words.

The more you write without slowing down to think, the more difficult it will be to edit.

The work you have done can become a burden, so it’s no longer the blank pages that are the problem, it’s the full ones!

I find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to edit pages of writing later if I go too fast and don’t clarify my thoughts as I go.

I find it far easier to slow down and find the words to express myself clearly while the idea is fresh in my head. I am in no rush to fill pages and am quite comfortable taking some time just to think about what I want to say.

I don’t separate writing and editing. I will edit a sentence as soon as I have written it to make sure the meaning is clear and that it fits with the sentences around it. If I do this the first time round, then any later editing is far easier.

The paradox is that by slowing down and taking time to edit as I go, the whole process from blank page to finished, edited work is much faster.

If doing it the other way works for you, stick with it; it clearly works for a lot of successful writers. But I know that a lot of students struggle with the editing stage having written thousands of words “just to get something to work with” and to “avoid having to face the blank page”.

In the next videos I’ll outline my writing and editing process, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether the blank page is something to fear and if so, why? Do you write first and edit later, and if so, how easy is the editing process?

It’s important to question the standard advice and the basic assumptions on which they are based, and equally importantly, I want you to question the advice I give too.

So leave a comment below, and let me know what you think.

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  1. Teresa says

    The blank page has never been a problem for me, as an amateur fiction writer the blank page represents a world of opportunities and I never understood why people moaned so much about the writing process.
    And then I started writing a scientific thesis, and in a foreign language (English). The difficulty doesn’t lie in the writing itself but in the mental process of organizing your ideas, your results, 3 years of chaos in one coherent, clear document looking like you knew where you were doing all along.
    I agree with you, James, in the importance of organizing well one’s thoughts before writing them down and I never write nonsense to get me started, but I can see why people do it, because to avoid writing poor quality material I can end up not writing anything at all for days.
    I’ll try to integrate some of your advice in my routine and see how it goes.
    Thanks for your help.

  2. Shahliza says

    Thanks James for all the tips. I have only 2 semesters remaining for my PhD and I do have lots of blanks pages to write. Your blogs really gives me hope in completing my thesis. I’m doing it part time and I still have 2 more results to produce. Is there any other advice from you in order to complete my thesis?

  3. Abdulaziz says

    Thank you, James.
    After reading your writing methods and advices, I understood my mistakes. You appointed to me them briefly.
    My first project was rejected because of overcapacity unedited thesis, lack of analysis skills, unreliable methods used, and etc. In writing time I postponed editing later. When I wanted to edit I lost my way how to rearranged them. After rejection, I was so much stressed and I hate writing it again. But having read your ideas, I found where I mistake.
    Your advice is a lesson for me. You gave me a new energy and motivation to write thesis with new soul. Thank you for all and wish best.
    Abdulaziz, Uzbekistan

  4. Joana says

    Thank you James for your extremely insightful website and helping us PhD students. I am giving a go at your writing method as I struggle a bit with getting my written expression in order.

    Kind Regards

    Joana, London

  5. VivHope says

    At last someone who agrees with me about thinking time and not being afraid of the blank page :)

    My supervisors have been disconcerted about my writing so few words in a day sometimes. But I tell them not to worry its in my head and I will get there.

    I keep my disordered thoughts in my PhD journal. That’s the place where I do my mapping, ordering and restructuring.

    A big mistake I’ve made though is to leave some of my references until later. I always put them in the document manually but I’m guilty of not updating my reference management database. My problem is that simetimes I can’t find the reference later :(

    • James Hayton says

      Should point out that I still get words on the page if I’m writing, I just don’t do it in a panic. If your supervisors want to see some writing, you need to deliver.

  6. demir says

    Here is the solution: “The problem is finding a starting point by deciding what to say first. If you solve that, the blank page problem disappears.”

    Deciding what to say first is very important to complete your work. I think, we should read relevant research quite well ..

  7. Usy says

    Hi James. Thank you for this article. I do find a blank page menacing. Although I tend to write and then edit I have been told that I need to structure more. One way of doing this is to use bullet points (which you have mentioned in previous posts). The use of bullet points breaks down ideas into a more structured format and ensures you only write what the bullet point states. This cuts down the waffle and ensures you stick to the point.

    One issue I do have with the above process is what do you actually talk about within the bullet points? For example if you are not a seasoned veteran in a particular topic you may find writing about it difficult.

    Any suggestions?

    p.s. keep up the good work and hopefully my institution can arrange for you to visit in the future.

  8. Jesca Kola says

    Thank you James for your kind spirit of volunteering to help us students. Since I discovered your website, my thesis writing has become much easier and quiet enjoyable. I have already written my chapter one and are now working on chapter two. My way has always been that I write one paragraph, edit it and then move to the next. If too many ideas are tumbling in my mind at the same time I write the 3 paragraphs then edit them to ensure that they are linking into each other well. I will remain forever grateful to you for your very handy words of wisdom and direction. My supervisors have remained very busy but your material has motivated me on.
    Thank you so much James and God bless you.
    Jesca, Kenya.

  9. Annie says

    James I wish wish WISH I could do this pre-editing process you are talking about. I am in the midst of a 20,000 word chapter at the moment, which I think I have edited about 5 times and it is driving me crazy but I keep fighting onwards. I think it depends on the scope of your chapter though as to whether your approach works. In my analysis chapters I thoroughly believe that your acute-thinking method is the best. In review chapters, where synthesizing other people’s work into our own ideas is key, I think it does require a bit more leniency. But you make a good point: how much focused thinking are we doing? That’s what counts, not the number of words.

    • James Hayton says

      Have you tried it? It’s just a matter of shortening the writing-editing cycle, so rather than waiting till you have thousands of words, edit quickly after writing a few paragraphs.

      Surely if you can edit 5000 words, editing 500 should be easier?

  10. Lana says

    Interesting article! There is a quote by Rem Koolhaas on the creation process: ‘Where there is nothing, everything is possible; where there is architecture, nothing (else) is possible.’

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