How to Surmount ‘Blank Page’ Syndrome | Lex Academic Blog

One of the biggest challenges of undertaking an extended piece of research, whether it’s facing your PhD or fulfilling a brief from a publisher, is simply getting the words down. There is nothing more daunting than a large word count to fulfil, especially if English is not your native language or you have a learning disorder. It feels like standing at sea level looking up towards the summit of a mountain and imagining the words as steps, pages as miles, and chapters as new heights to climb. But by practicing self-compassion, giving yourself time and space, and making the best of your own way of working, you can get words on the page without exhausting yourself. Here are a few pointers about getting into good, manageable writing habits.

Recognize your own best practice and pace

The greatest gift you can give yourself (preferably as early on as you can) is to experiment with how you work best. It may sound obvious to emphasize how important recognising your working style is, but it is easy to fall into habits that hinder progress by not giving yourself the space and permission to find better ones. The only right way to get words on the page is the way that feels right to you. We all work at different paces and have different schedules. Some people work in a protracted way, finding it best to write little and often. Others may only have the time to devote short, intense bursts of time to their writing. Some may research while they write, whereas others may study and plan intensely before they feel they can commit pen to paper. Don’t be side-tracked by comparison with others: your goal is to express yourself and give an account of your work and research that, if it’s any good, will be unique to you.

Think on a granular level

If a writing task feels overwhelming, break it down into smaller components until it feels manageable. Writing a draft of a 7,000-word journal article in a fortnight may seem daunting. But how does 500 words in a day sound? Or 250 words in the morning and 250 in the afternoon? Or 25 words every half an hour followed by a 15-minute break, repeated ten times? The result is the same; the only thing that changes is the way you perceive the task.

Enlist help for the editing process

To alleviate the stress of drafting material from scratch, it can help to arrange editorial support. Getting a professional proofreader, copy editor, or substantive editor can provide relief and build confidence in your ability to meet the deadline. It can also add buoyancy to your drafting and writing process. Great writing, after all, is largely in the editing. So if you have research funds you can allocate towards this, you may find you become a more productive writer knowing that you have enlisted a trusted professional to get your manuscript completed (and beautifully polished) within a certain deadline. Furthermore, if you are a perfectionist, you may feel you need to draft a paper already carefully heeding the publisher’s style guide. It is liberating to draft without these formatting constraints in mind, and outsource that process to a professional copy editor (who will inevitably also discover and correct your rogue typos).

Find the right environment

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different environments and times of day or moods, along with their effects on your productivity – especially at the start of each stage of your education or career. Notice or jot down how energised or industrious you feel in different surroundings. Working in a busy café may drain or provoke anxiety in one writer, but invigorate another. It can be helpful to organize your writing time so you can be held accountable by others. This could involve co-working in person or remotely, or physically booking study spaces where you know someone will knock on the door when your time is up. Knowing your pressure points is key. If you’re affiliated with an institution, many now run ‘bootcamps’ specifically for people struggling to simply get the words down. This is the perfect environment for eliminating distractions by having the day’s schedule removed entirely out of your own hands. It can be especially helpful for those with extra commitments, such as parents and carers, or those who are juggling full-time work with their research. See also writing retreats.

Get into the practice of writing for the sake of it

A useful thing to remember is that writing constitutes physical as well as mental exercise. In that spirit, warm yourself up to prepare your body and brain. If you’ve scheduled an afternoon for writing, set a timer for 15 minutes to write down something completely unrelated to the task ahead. Write whatever comes into your head, pose yourself a question to answer, or use a word or picture prompt. If you’re less comfortable with self-directed writing, invest in a mindfulness or bullet journal to integrate into your writing routine. This practice takes the pressure off the outcome of your writing and eases you into the sensation of writing.

Broaden your own definition of ‘writing’

Very few people can sit at a desk at 9 am, produce 10,000 words of fluid prose, and call it a day. Most of us do not have the luxury of time or the attention span to sustain that kind of intensive production. Instead, think of ways you can stimulate yourself into getting something down. Are you combining your research with teaching responsibilities? Take advantage of that mindset by writing about your topic as though you were explaining something new to someone else. If you’re a gifted speaker or find it easier to express yourself in person, why not take advantage of this by investing in dictation software? If you thrive in creative spaces or are adept at producing diagrams, express the chapter you want to write as a storyboard or flow chart – and then simply describe it in prose. See the words you produce in the same way as a lump of clay. They are ready to be moulded, sculpted, or even completely reworked. The writing that results from this does not have to be perfect or even coherent to anyone but yourself, which leads to the next point.

Remember that nothing is wasted

You cannot improve on something that isn’t there. 1,000 words of bad writing is still 1,000 words to be edited, embellished, and reconceived. If you’re in a flow of writing and you can’t find le bon mot at the time, mark the space as XXX so you can revisit it without interrupting yourself. If you write too much or later decide you have embarked on a tangent that no longer works, use colour coding or copy and paste the excess into a new document. Save as much as you can; could the extraneous material form the basis of an article or blog? Could you retool it as a teaching resource or a conference paper? The value of getting words on the page lies not only in what those words can become, but how the act makes you feel. Even weaker sentences are evidence of your efficacy as a writer, and these visual impressions of your own capacity to do the work are invaluable in the positive feedback loop that gets your ideas flowing and papers finished.

Celebrate your efforts

You know yourself best. Be kind to yourself. When you’re working, you are doing something amazing that only you can do; no one else will produce the same work. For those who feel frustrated when undertaking academic work in their non-native language, remember how many skills you are using at one time compared with a native speaker ­– and what an achievement that is. Every word on the page is progress. This is true regardless of whether it is the final word or the wrong word that makes you realize where you should be heading, pushing you forward one step closer to the summit.

Dr Jessica Oliver is Editorial Project Manager at Lex Academic. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Sussex, an MA in English from 1850 to the Present from King’s College London, and a BA in English Literature from the University of East Anglia. She has taught and worked in higher education for the past decade, and previously worked in editorial at Wiley-Blackwell in their academic books division.