The Threat of an Empty Page

By Emily Zimmer

“I have a horror of the blank page. I simply cannot write on a blank page or screen. Because once I do, I start to fix it, and I never get past the first sentence.” — Charles Krauthammer

Taken by Niklas Freidwall on April 22, 2009 (Flickr|Creative Commons)
Taken by Niklas Freidwall on April 22, 2009 (Flickr|Creative Commons)

The vast emptiness of the page is overwhelming. The stark white seems blinding without the interruption of the dark text. As you stare at the Microsoft Word document, you sheepishly offer an attempt at what will serve as the introduction to your next written feat. Yet, every word you type onto the page seems wrong. Not just wrong, but trivial and insignificant to the piece. You can feel the ideas circling in your mind, eager to be released but trapped by your seemingly useless fingertips on the keyboard.

Why is it that the empty page presents itself as an obstacle at times rather than a safe haven for your words? Is it the amount of space you have to fill? The daunting constraints of a professor’s seemingly favorite Microsoft Word tool, Word Count? Or, simply, a case of writer’s block, the excuse you hate to use due to its clichéd nature? The cause for your trepidation may be unknown, yet it still exists and finds its way back to haunt you each time you place your fingertips on the awaiting keys of your laptop to write another paper or begin another story.

To combat this slight bout of writer’s block, fear, or overwhelmed awe in the face of the potential greatness of your future work, I have thought of a few tips that I hope will help.

1.Use lined paper.

For me, the lines of a notebook page seem to serve as a support beam for my words on the page. They fill the page with a place to set my thoughts, rather than leave them unsupported on an invisible tightrope as the Microsoft Word document does. Take advantage of the lines and freedom from the screen. To escape from the distracting green and red jagged lines that unfailingly capture your attention to point out a glaring error, is to free your thoughts and writing, momentarily, from the reigns of meticulous punctuation and grammar. Your handwriting seems to fill the page more quickly and effectively than the small 12-point Times New Roman font. Let yourself take a break from the routine of monotonously typing your thoughts onto a screen and use the notebook that you made your mom buy during your annual back to school shopping.

2. Outline.

A throwback for many of us as we remember the insistence of our middle school teachers who touted that prewriting and outlining our papers was the true key to success. Yet, as much as you may hate to admit this, in retrospect, you can see their logic in the matter. Having a game plan when beginning your writing does help. You don’t have to meditate at the end of each topic’s paragraphs in your paper and question where you want to go from there. You don’t have to spend as much time figuring out the best order for your paper for guaranteed transitional success in subject matter. It’s already done and all laid out for you in a manner that would make any former teacher of yours proud.

3. Talk it out.

Be the person talking to yourself in the library or an empty room. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I do it all the time. If people give you a weird look as you whisper your introduction aloud to yourself to check for clarity and flow, know that I’m probably somewhere in the library doing the same exact thing. Sometimes the words on a page don’t seem right. Their sequence is wrong or one simply is not fitting in with the intended impression of the sentence. Let them come alive with your voice and see what sounds natural. To leave them voiceless on the page limits your ability to truly see the effect they have.

4. Just go with it.

With that I mean just start writing from anywhere. Take the thought that seems most composed in your mind and write it on the page. Keep writing anything that follows and don’t question your logic or order. It’s fine to write your conclusion first or a random section of your future fourth sub-thesis. Sometimes when you stop looking for perfection or true order and logic, the best words find their way out, escaping the trap of overthinking and grammatical constraint. Jodi Picoult has said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Don’t focus on having everything sound perfect as you write it down. Allow your thoughts to flow and then wrangle in the intent and grammar once they are down on the page.

Rather than allowing the feeling of being overwhelmed to overtake your writing process, simply look for other means to avoid or negate the fear of the blank page. Don’t let it serve as an obstacle but instead allow it to be the intended safe haven for your thoughts and opinions.

Emily Zimmer is junior studying English and Speech Language Hearing Science at the University of Connecticut. She is on the fiction panel at the Long River Review.

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