Fear of the blank page is a real thing—that empty, seemingly endless whiteness staring back at you, mocking you, bringing up all the terrible feelings.
You’re not alone.
And when we feel the fear of the blank page we run. We do anything we can to avoid facing it because we’re naturally programmed to avoid fear—it’s how the human species has survived for so many years.
But the thing is, our primitive brain isn’t sophisticated enough to know the difference between the fears we experience—to it, fear of the blank page is just as life threatening as fear brought on from a wayward 16-wheeler.
The trick here is to train your brain that starting isn’t scary. The more familiar your brain is with something, the more efficient it becomes. And when it’s efficient at something, it isn’t scared of it.
I’m a professional writer—I’m a copywriter by day and blogger and fiction writer by night. I write 50-60 hours a week and I STILL get scared of the blank page every single day.
No matter how much you write, fear of the blank page is inevitable. The hack to writing isn’t to get rid of fear, but rather to get familiar with it, to start to see it as a harmless companion.
Thankfully, the antidote from crippling fear is simple—create a very easy Getting Started routine that you do at the beginning of every single writing session.
I talked about this already in the post 7 Ways to Conquer the Dreaded Writer’s Overwhelm, but this routine is so key to a writer’s success that it warrants its own post.
To conquer the fear of getting started, do the same Getting Started sequence every single time you sit down to write. This needs to be several steps that are really easy that you’ve done a million times before.
Here’s what my Getting Started routine looks like every day:
- Put on classical music. (Zoe Keating Pandora. It’s amazing—check it out.)
- Put phone across the room.
- Sit down in chair.
- Open a Google doc.
- Set timer for 25 minutes*
- Write a word.
- Write another word.
- More words.
- Etc, etc., etc.
*I use the Pomodoro Technique and the mantra “I’m strong enough to feel uncomfortable for 25 minutes”. Those two things together are extremely powerful, but we’ll dive deeper into that on another day!
Steps 1-5 in my Getting Started routine are VERY important. They’ve become literal muscle memory, which allows my brain to feel really comfortable—aka, it doesn’t freak out anymore when it’s time to write.
However, sometimes my brain still freaks out, especially if I have a brand new writing endeavor or I’m stretching myself somehow. The familiarity of your Getting Started routine is really important in this circumstance too. The familiarity of the movements will free up your focus so you can start paying attention to your primitive brain, or your “client brain” as I like to call it.
Somedays, no matter how much you’ve been writing or how confident you’ve been feeling, your mind will start screaming at you to stop. It will feed you all kinds of excuses as to why you can’t write today—you have a headache, you’re stuck, you’re confused on what to write, you just generally suck.
That part of your brain is designed to seek instant gratification above all other things. It wants to avoid the unknown and the scary. But here’s a secret—you don’t have to actually oblige it. It’s possible (and actually pretty easy with practice) to listen to it throw its tantrums and to keep moving forward with your Getting Started routine.
This tantrum in my mind often happens once I get to Step 6 in my routine—the actual writing part. At Step 6 when I have to write the first word, I get a new flood of fear. Seriously every single time. It never goes away and it never will. And that’s totally fine!
Once I get to the writing part, I just start writing. And most of the time what I write at first is trash. The key here—the goal for this step—is to erase the blank page. Putting words on the page, even if they’re literally incomprehensible, instantly beats the blank page and therefore greatly decreases the fear. When you put words (any words at all!) on the page, it helps you realize the blank page is neither precious nor powerful.
Another trick I use is to do a “data dump” or “mind dump” where I write out the main points of my current writing piece in the most basic form. This works for every type of writing from technical writing to blog posts to fiction. The first draft is just for you. It will never see the light of day. It’s for you to figure out what the story is, what the point is, what the hell you are trying to say.
If you’ve read the post How to Keep Writing When It Gets Hard, you know the “How”—the actual steps that lead to the accomplishment of your goal—never ever happens by thinking.
It happens by action.
That means you’ll never simply think your writing piece into existence. You can think about an outline or a topic or a thesis, but when you start to write, when you start to put the words onto paper, is when the true point of your piece comes into existence.
Expect the first draft to suck. That’s okay! That’s good! Yes, it’s a lot of work to write an entire first draft only to shuck it all, but the first draft is the most valuable part of the writing process because it’s when you get your point. When you get your story. All the rest is just patience and craft. The story is the value.
So get started. Do the same steps every single time you write. The fear never goes away, but it does get easier to sit with the fear. It gets easier to see that it’s not life-threatening. It gets easier to sit with the discomfort of creating bad writing at first. And it gets more and more exciting to dig out the story once you get your words on paper.
Do not expect the first draft to be good. Or even the second or the third. The craft of your writing is just details.
The true gold is the story. But you have to get started to find it.
Train your brain that starting isn’t as bad as it’s trying to make it seem. You’re strong enough to get started. You can start even if you have no idea what you’re doing. That will come. Get in your chair and start to write. And the way to start is to do the same simple steps over and over and over.
What’s your Getting Started routine? Share it below in the comments!