Stop Staring at a Blank Page: 4 (Not So) Silly Writing Tips to Get Words on Paper

Image: open notepad with the word "Crap" written on the first line
Photo credit: matthewebel on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Today’s post is by editor and book coach Sandra Wendel.

Imagine the first writer’s block: perhaps a caveman with a rudimentary stick staring at a large, blank rock. Today’s equivalent of the blank rock may be a computer screen, and your process may seem like the pie chart below.

When you sit down to write (and there’s a problem right there; you may not do well sitting down), do you find yourself with a sudden urge to clean out a file drawer? Throw in a load of laundry? Search the internet for ways to clean wine stains out of carpet? Check the refrigerator for the third time? Bake a cake instead?

You have something to say, but what’s holding you back?

In my writing classes, I ask my students to consider this question: When you go somewhere new, do you prefer to tap the address into a smartphone GPS and hear the turn-by-turn directions? Or do you stop and ask directions? Or do you just want to see the map? Maybe you wing it and get lost before you stop and ask directions. Which technique do you use?

If you want to hear the directions, you are an audio learner. If you want to see the map, consider yourself a visual learner. And those who wing it would be considered kinesthetic learners.

Let’s translate that into writing techniques.

1. The I-Need-to-Hear-It Writer

The audio learner may well be an audio writer. You are easily distracted by sound. So the birds chirping outside take your attention away from the computer. The furnace clicking on and off, the clock ticking, the refrigerator cycling, a hum from somewhere—all distract your brain from the task at hand.

Audio writers are fascinated with sound, and we can harness that ability to help in the writing process because audio people are often magnificent storytellers. Capture those thoughts in words by dictating a story, a scene, a paragraph, a description of a crowded train station.

I recommend the Voice Memos on your iPhone and various speech-to-text apps like Speechy (free) and Dragon (paid) that turn your sounds into words. You then email those dictated files to your computer and have raw words on paper, so to speak, without keyboarding.

Another app called Rev captures sound/dictation and even conversation among two or more people. You send off the files to their transcribers and have written text within hours (for a fee based on per-minute recording). I’ve worked on memoirs written, rather dictated, entirely on Rev. I use Rev for interviews and oral histories too.

Your version of Word may already have speech-recognition software built in. All you need to do is get an external microphone (or headset) and talk to yourself. Use the Help feature and search text-to-speech for directions on finding this well-hidden bonus you may have right in front of you.

Desperate to just capture a thought and you either have no paper or pen or hands free to write? Phone yourself and leave yourself a voice message.

Another option is to tell your story to someone else, in an interview format. Use a recorder.

2. The I-Need-to-See-It Writer

sample storyboard with Post It notes, on easel

The visual learner needs to see the big picture. These writers make outlines (outlines can turn into the book’s table of contents). They use index cards for ideas and shuffle them or lay them out on a table to visually see the story as it unfolds. Post-It notes do the same thing when placed on a board or table, as a storyboard. Others may simply draw out the plotline through time for each character.

Do you identify with this type of writer? I don’t know about a thousand words, but doodles and drawings can sometimes make the unclear clear, like when I was buying special nails for affixing new siding, and the associate was saying, “Blah blah blah,” (that’s what I heard until I asked him to draw a picture). Do you ever find yourself telling someone to “draw me a picture” or drawing one yourself?

sample mind map drawing
Example of a mind map

The act of drawing will help you organize and “see” the story. A mind map, therefore, is you drawing a picture of your plot, your characters, your complete story, a chapter, a through line, a story arc. Your central theme is usually the center point, and the subplots or characters branch out from that main theme. It’s like an outline. Yes, and even a tried-and-true outline is an ideal way to lay out your book (especially in nonfiction). Outlines don’t need to be elaborate or detailed, and you don’t need software, just a page of notebook paper. Mind maps can help you visual writers get started.

3. The Quirky Kinesthetic Writer

Neither visual or audio driven, the kinesthetic writer needs movement, which is why sitting down at a computer/laptop isn’t going to work well.

So stand up. Put your laptop on the kitchen counter. Take a walk and then come back and dump your brain onto paper.

We know the best ideas come when we are least expecting them. Thus the brain is tricked, during activity, to trigger a bright idea. Do you know the three most common scenarios for ideas to jump into your head (P.S.: Those ideas are already there.)? The answer is while sleeping, driving, or taking a bath/shower.

What is it about water? If you’re stuck for an idea, wash the dishes. Put your hands in water. Or take a bath. I go kayaking.

If those ideas pop into your head while driving, be sure to grab your dictation device and capture it. Or for god’s sakes, pull over and write it down.

Use the sleeping trigger to set your intention before you go to bed. Keep a paper and pen or smartphone dictation device handy so you can brain dump it the moment you awaken.

One of my kinesthetic authors was writing about barefoot running. He would take long runs and return to his computer with a jumble of ideas and thoughts and brain dump immediately into his computer. Sometimes he’d type, but as his thoughts came too quickly for his fingers, he’d dictate on voice recognition software.

Some writers need to change their venues. That’s why we hear about prolific novelists such as William Kent Krueger thanking the staff in the coffee shops where he writes for allowing him to commandeer “booth #4” for far too long. Or Malcolm Gladwell who seeks out coffee shops when he travels, less for the brew and more for the right kind of distracting atmosphere.

For some of us, our blank pages can be electronic or something else. Yes, some authors continue to write out their books on yellow legal pads. One woman in my class confessed to typing on an old manual Remington Rand.

4. Start at the Beginning—or Not

When you are wondering where to start, just jump in. Anywhere. Somewhere. And not necessarily at the beginning. Write what feels right at the moment without the pressure to start at the beginning.

People writing memoirs like to start at the beginning chronologically, and that’s fine to start with. But a smart editor can often see the big picture and move something life-defining to the opening chapter as a grabber for readers.

I worked with a bank robber, Richard Stanley, who grew up in a gang-controlled San Diego neighborhood. The influences of his surroundings were tough to break out of. In fact, he started robbing banks and ended up in prison for nearly eight years.

He started his story when he was doing petty shoplifting and stealing CDs from Target and reselling them to his classmates in the fourth grade.

I revised the narrative to start with the defining moment in his life: his first adrenaline-powered, hands-sweating bank robbery. A stolen getaway car, hasty disguise, a quickly scratched note—“Put the money on the counter”—and the need for cash to buy a meal at Taco Bell. As his story unfolded, we dipped back into the events of his tumultuous childhood.

The lesson here is that Stanley started his manuscript at the chronological beginning because that was comfortable to him, then had an editor help reorganize. Editors can deliver stunning results when you have the materials all there in the first place.

Parting Advice

No time to write? Make time or schedule the time. Get up early and grab some time before work or school. Say no to outside activities. Start with just five minutes a day. Then increase it to ten minutes. Build the habit of confronting the blank page.

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