Friday, May 19, 2017

Fear of the Blank Page

We've all been there. In fact, I was there until about three seconds ago.

No matter what kind of writing we do, whether we're consummate wordsmiths or grammar-phobic mathematicians, the blank page is, as one Modernist writer called it, "The face of fear." While we meet many other faces of fear along the way to completing a thesis or dissertation (procrastination, stalled research, critical advisors...), simply getting started causes its own unique terror. But there are several simple ways to overcome this phenomenon.

How to Vanquish the Blank Page

 1.  Put some words on it. This is the simplest way you can lessen the starkness of a white screen.  Something about empty white space instills fear in us, and of course it hurts our eyes too. Really: simply type out a working title. Format a table of contents or dash off an acknowledgements page. Or paste in your bibliography and begin to edit it.  Any of these little tasks not only fill the page with quite a bit of text, but it will get you comfortable with sitting with THAT document. (You know the one.)

2. Use a blue blocker, especially after sunset. Reducing the blue light in your life is good for your overall health, but it also decreases the whiteness (read: scariness!) of the screen. You can buy a physical screen blocker or download an app.

3. Trust that every little step leads to the next one.  You don't have to begin at the beginning! When I began the draft of my dissertation prospectus (so we're talking draft and prospectus... not even the real deal), I was terrified. So, I started with the low-hanging fruit. Did I know how to write a contextual history of the topic I'd barely begun to research? No. Did I even know what methodology I would use? No. So, I began by pasting in my bibliography, cleaning it up, and formatting it. I learned from that exercise which sources were most important to me. Then I was able to write a methodology (i.e. which literary texts I would research and using which sources).  Once I did that, I was homed in on a topic, and better suited to write the introductory paragraphs of the proposal.  And, if I had had to write a literature review, I wouldn't have been able to do that until I'd read everything for the rest of the proposal. Every simple task teaches you something that helps with the harder tasks.

4. Type up your notes. You've already written or typed out ideas, observations, and reactions as you read or researched. Paste those ideas into an outline. The outline can be loose! Whenever you write a first draft, it's just a draft. You can make it pretty later.  Seeing all your thoughts in one place, and connecting them with the tissue of a paper-structure (however tentative it may be) gives you a framework for imagining your paper. 

5. Actually use your imagination. True story: When writing up prospective chapter outlines in my proposal, I asked my advisor, "So, I just imagine the chapter I hope to have written and describe it? Like I'm describing the best chapter I can imagine?" Yes, she said.  Use your right brain to power through those crippling left brain moments. At some point you have to make your imaginary dissertation into reality (and edit the unicorns out of Chapter 2...), but visualizing it helps make it happen. 

These are the tricks I'm currently using to make my dissertation happen.  What frightens you about writing? And how do you find ways to overcome the fear of getting started?

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! Very helpful ideas, as well as just encouraging.