I have a phobia of blank pages. No matter how excited I am about a project, as soon as I open a new document, my creativity seizes up. My eyes twitch. And cowardice disguises itself as procrastination, urging me to go brew a cup of coffee.
Whether the day’s assignment is a chapter, short story, blog post, or article, formulating the first few sentences feels like a life-or-death undertaking. I have much to cover and so many ways to mess up. If, like me, you stare vacantly at a blinking cursor for hours, fear not. You can escape the paralysis, and I’m going to show you how.
1. Silence Perfectionism
I once took an art class where the instructor splattered the canvas she was preparing to paint on. She explained that ruining it eased the pressure to avoid mistakes.
A first line is a means to an end. Don’t expect to carve out a masterpiece in one sitting, because odds are, the contents will change twenty times before your book is ready for publication. You can fix poor writing in subsequent drafts. Instead of agonizing (and stalling) over your hook, insert a placeholder to set the dominoes in motion.
When a blank page ensnares me for too long, I type random sentences to warm up my brain. The more ridiculous, the better. I ramble about fried eggs, my wall color, and the weird smell in the hall whenever it rains. I hammer out a mini essay about how much I despise my profession and intend to trade my wealth (of frustration) to become a reclusive goatherd in the Swiss hills. Spewing words—even stupid words—greases the gears of creativity and mars the oppressively immaculate page to make it more approachable.
Remember, the first stroke of a painting isn’t important because it’s good but because it leads to more colors and details. Let your ideas spill out and multiply. Worry about sprucing up the results later.
2. Focus on the Little Picture
Since all of your scenes are supposed to interconnect and build up to a memorable culmination, the middle or the ending (where the bigger events usually happen) may monopolize your attention. You need a catalyst—no, multiple catalysts. Promptly, your imagination kicks into overdrive and shuts down.
Similar to a placeholder, a mundane action can serve as a stress-free bridge from Point A to Point B. Anything from a character stirring his tea to walking across a room will suffice. The gesture may have no bearing on the situation, and you’ll probably replace it during revisions, but for now it segues one moment into another, preserving the momentum that could have been lost.
Slow down and stop gaping at the breadth of your novel. Yes, it’s intimidating. Yes, it’s complicated. And yes, it’s a disaster. But you only need to fill in a portion of it—over and over, of course—to finish the whole. So write with the immediate scene in mind and see where your character stumbles off to.
3. Sketch a Simple Outline
When I sit down to draft a blog post without a topic and a plan for communicating it, I sabotage my productivity. Instead of gliding from paragraph to paragraph on the same path, I wander through side streets and back alleys in an attempt to reach a destination. Then I end up with a convoluted thought trail that I have to sort out before it’s usable.
Familiarity with the basic framework of a scene can help you stay inspired and on track. You don’t have to construct a fifty-page outline complete with dialogue prompts and action beats. Just jot down brief descriptions of all the developments that need to happen in consecutive order—for example: the boy breaks the plate, the girl gets angry, they both storm out. Even if you’re a discovery writer (aka pantser), giving yourself dots to connect saves you the struggle of plunging in blind.
4. Skip the First Paragraph
Fun fact: I added the introduction to this article last.
No, not because I’m a rebel or disorganized. Opening words slithered beyond my grasp. So, instead of descending into a state of hair-pulling numbness for three hours, I jumped into the section that came to me the most readily. When I arrived at the closing, my creativity had revved up enough that I could craft a proper intro.
You might feel obligated to write chronologically. Surely you’ll defy a cardinal rule if you don’t! But that’s a myth. If you can articulate the second paragraph and not the first, begin there. You can circle back whenever you’re able.
Fair warning: because consistency and coherency will be harder to maintain, you’ll have extra editing to do afterward. I recommend trying this approach only if you have an outline or a clear vision for where your project is headed.
The Most Pivotal Steps Are the Smallest
Getting stuck is easier than getting started, and when you’ve been glaring at your screen so long that your eyes burn and your head aches, quitting becomes a reflexive temptation. But a blank page is more than a portal to potential failure and anxiety—it’s a gateway to possibility.
Although overwhelm is natural, it’s also unnecessary. Your first line doesn’t have to be a gigantic monument broadcasting your story’s incomparability to every other story in existence. Its sole purpose is to prime your well so that the ideas pushing for release can flow out.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.