We may joke about the ‘blue screen of death’ that appears when a computer crashes, but an even more frightening sight for a writer is the ‘white screen of nothing’ we see when we can’t seem to get started writing.
That blank screen or page is so scary because a writer’s job is to fill it. Not just any fill the page, but populate the barren field with words that tell a story or convey an opinion or, in the best of outcomes, make someone feel something. Whether the page stays blank because of procrastination or some kind of writer’s block, the words won’t write themselves. Having a variety of tools at hand can help when the white screen of dullness overwhelms you.
Deadlines are motivational for some writers. The idea that someone is waiting to read what we have to say can be compelling. Granted, professionals who work under deadline all the time may find a fixed timeline a master rather than a servant. For writers working for themselves, setting a deadline can often be the impetus to get it all down on paper. This summer, I’ve committed to posting on this blog at least three times a week and revising the historical novel I completed recently. Setting deadlines for each of those has helped keep me on track.
Although the number of readers doesn’t indicate I have my core 1,000 true fans yet, I still feel that consistency is going to grow my audience, so I keep developing ideas for my blog and putting in the time my novel needs. In fact, having a couple of different projects to work on seems to help me keep my daily word count up, which leads me to a second technique for writers facing a work slow down…or full stop: keep several projects going at once.
Earlier this summer, I read a great post by Jeff Goins called “The System I Used to Write 5 Books and Over 1,000 Blog Posts”. Goins’s system has three stages: gather ideas, write drafts, and revise. Obviously, he wasn’t reinventing the wheel; the stages of the writing process are commonly delineated this way. The article inspired me because Goins elaborated on his personal system to achieve all three stages. He calls it “The Three Bucket System”. Bucket #1 is full of ideas. Bucket #2 contains drafts. Bucket #3 is full of edits.
I’ve adopted a version of his process myself. First, I keep a notebook to dip into when I need an idea. The book is a personalized book of writing prompts. Every time I get an idea about something I want to write, a blog post, a short story, a novel, whatever, I put a brief description of it at the top of the page and then use the remaining space to jot down ideas and brainstorm. In the back, I’ve created an index based on the Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal system and log in all the ideas so I can find them easily.
I also created a highlighter coding system. Topics are assigned a unique color so I can flip through and identify key themes I return to again and again. If I’m writing a post for a Wednesday, I want an idea about a book I’ve read for my “Off My Shelf” series, so I look for a topic highlighted in yellow. My goal as a writer is to write EVERY DAMN DAY and this notebook is one source for ideas when a blank page taunts me.
Of course, writing prompts in general are effective for some writers. Plenty of internet spaces have long lists of prompts of every description, but my favorite are visual writing prompts, such as the ones on this Weebly site. These prompts are designed for student writers, but are evocative enough for adults. One of the problems with such prompts, though, is that they aren’t often relevant to a writer’s current project. Another way of finding new fuel for something you’re working on is to role play: be a reporter!
One technique I’ve used with students that adult writers might find useful is to use the journalists’ questions “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “When? ”Why?”, and “How?” In the classroom, once students have a topic, I will ask them to write it at the top of a piece of notebook paper and pass it around. As each new student gets the paper, he or she generates questions about the topic using the six words. So if a student’s topic is “Bullying”, other students might ask “What is bullying?” or “How can we stop bullying?” My advice to the writers is to answer the questions if nothing comes when they sit down to write.
Leverage those questions to trigger your writing! Imagine what questions your readers might have about your topic, or your characters, or your plot and then answer them. While it might be difficult if you are an introvert, ask people what questions they have when you share your topic or story idea.
In any case, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between writing and editing a draft. Don’t try to do both at the same time. Use one of these techniques to get the words down on the page, and then go back and edit. Let go and just write it down, then you can return in the editing stage to rearrange everything and develop any still shadowy ideas.