Maybe you’ve never heard of blank page syndrome. I mean, it’s a term I made up, so chances are pretty good it’s new to you.
But you know what it is, I promise. It’s the feeling of opening up a WordPress draft or a new Word document (or pulling out a fresh sheet of paper, if you’re old school), looking at it, and…well, just looking at it.
You want to write, but you’re paralyzed. Maybe you squeak a few sentences out, all feeling very forced. You imagine all the brilliant writers who have come before you, scribbling by candlelight or clicking furiously on a typewriter. The only problem they had was there was too much to say.
Or in our contemporary world, you might think of Mr. Erik Dietrich, who (I happen to know) sits down to write a blog post and stands up half an hour later to say, “Well, that’s done. Should I knock another one out or go for a jog?” Where does this gush of marvelous words come from? And why can’t we all enjoy that same endless inspiration?
Meanwhile, us regular Joes struggle. Even if we know the topic we want to speak of, titles are easy. It’s the body text that’s the challenge. Blank page syndrome can freeze you in place unless you have some tools for tackling it.
So here are a few.
1. Go Back to School
Outlines, theses, mind maps, works cited. I know; it’s all giving you horrible flashbacks, and there’s something inherently juvenile-feeling about it all. Hear me out, though.
If you figure out two things, your blank page is going to be way easier to fill up. And the easiest way I can describe these two things, as they’re universally understood, will spark memories from school—and probably not fond ones. But here we go.
First, you need a thesis. Second, you need an outline. Now, let’s talk about these in terms of blank page syndrome.
While having a post title will give you a topic, you need more than that to overcome the intimidation of the looming blank space. A thesis will give your post a mission statement (which you also need for your blog in general, but that’s another post). And this is how you can craft your thesis: by thinking it as a short statement of your post’s mission in life, based on what you want readers to leave knowing. For this post, my thesis is “Just sitting down to write a whole post is hard, but here are ways to make it easier to write when you feel uninspired. I’m going to share some.” (Pro tip: if you’re having trouble with a conclusion for your post, a thesis will help you, too.
Just add “As a consequence of reading this post, _____________” to the thesis statement. Mine would be “As a consequence of reading this post, writers will have tools that will help them overcome writer’s block, which is a threat to their blog’s cadence.”)
You notice I don’t have that exact thesis anywhere in the first paragraph or the intro or anything. While it’s true that you need to tell the readers what they can expect to learn from your post in your intro, don’t think of this thesis as something that’s going to go into your post word for word. That might cause more paralysis. Just consider it an exercise purely for you, to help you focus.
Once you have a thesis, lay out your subheads, knowing each should contribute to the mission of the post you’ve just established. The subheads will be so much easier now that you know your post’s mission. And just filling out your subheads will transform your “write a whole post” task on your to-do list into a “fill-in-the-blanks” task.
If you’re having an especially hard time, you can further divide the task now, too—just fill in a subhead a day. You can write 300 words today about one very specific, predetermined topic that helps you achieve an already clearly articulated mission, can’t you?
If you can, you’ll have a 1200-word blog post in four days. That’s good enough to post once a week.
2. Think of Stories
Now that you’ve got your mission and your structure laid out, time to work on the first sentence.
If you’re like me, that’s where you get stuck again.
It’s okay! Intros are great for storytime. People dig stories. Think about the things that have stuck with you from the blog posts you’ve loved. Haven’t they been things like, say, a blogger’s described moment of seeing the light at a particularly stupid code review? Or haven’t they often been excellent real-life analogies, like Erik’s bowling example in his Expert Beginner series? (Disclaimer—this is a shameless plug for a HS co-founder, but it’s just such a great example. I put it here because it’s stuck with ME all this time.)
A good, vivid analogy or a well-described experience from your life isn’t just filler for your post. It’s often how we authors strike a chord with our readers, driving our point home while staying memorable.
Are you writing a post about micromanagement? Why? You probably wouldn’t be tackling the topic if you hadn’t been subject to a micromanager, so share an anecdote from your life. Or maybe you’re writing to help people learn what TDD is and why so many engineers are enthusiasts. So think of a fictional situation that highlights a problem that TDD would solve. You do that, and you’ve set yourself up perfectly to make your argument.
I’ve cherry-picked a few examples here that take well to storytime, but I know, not everything in tech takes well to stories. What about the drier stuff that needs to be written—the how-to posts or the basics-covering posts that you’re having trouble getting started with? Well, maybe you can get some inspiration from the next piece of advice.
3. Report on Some Background
So you’re having some trouble coming up with material to jumpstart your post, or you don’t just want to launch into a list of steps or screenshots. And even after coming up with a thesis and outlining, you’re still struggling with this post emerging fully formed from your head like Athena. There’s a subtle a weight to knowing everything that goes into a post has to come from you, and that weight can cause writer’s block.
The tactic I’d advise to avoid blank page syndrome in this case is to make it so that not everything comes from your own brain. Go outside yourself and do some research so you can give your readers background. Imagine being one of your readers. What would be cool to learn about as far as the history of what you’re discussing? In our TDD example, how did the practice come about? When did it rise to prominence and why?
This is also a great tactic for when you’re looking to beef up your word count and feel kind of lost on what else to write about.
Power Through It
I know white page syndrome is a strong force. It happens to me. The whole inspiration for this post was popping open a WordPress draft, thinking “Uhhh…,” and proceeding to internet-crastinate on Twitter. But fight through the burn. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s why (and you may recognize this from an earlier in-text preview):
Cadence. As someone who’s focusing on growing your blog, the most important thing you can do is publish reliably. Figure out what you can commit to writing per week, and write. If you start publishing at a predictable pace and time, you will get traffic. Once you’ve stuck to a schedule for a bit, you can work on other growth tactics, but the number one thing you could do right now is make sure you publish like clockwork.
Blank page syndrome can threaten your cadence, and for that reason alone, you need to develop tactics to overcome it.
So what about you all? Any tips for overcoming the paralysis that can accompany that stark white page?