No matter what your major, you’re going to find yourself staring at a blank Word document someday soon. And the blank Word document will stare right back at you, disdainfully, waiting for you to finally sputter out a few words.
Starting from scratch and staring at that blank page is one of the most frustrating parts of writing a paper in college. (This just in: it’s also one of the most frustrating parts of writing a blog post 5 years after finishing college.) It’s always made me anxious: what if writer’s block kicks in hardcore and I can’t write anything? What if I get a 0 on the assignment? What’ll happen to my grades? What’ll happen to my scholarships?!
So, just in time for the beginning of the fall semester, here are a few ways go from blank page to “Okay, at least I started!”:
1. Just start typing nonsense to get some words on the page. Start by writing about what you ate for breakfast or something else you’ve done that day. If you trick yourself into thinking you’ve already got a few paragraphs written, then the real topic might flow a bit more easily.
2. Don’t insist on starting at the beginning. Sit down and begin writing whichever part of the paper begins to flow first. (I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve written the ending to a paper before I’ve written the beginning.) Ignore any concerns about the way ideas flow together; you can re-arrange everything later on.
3. Reign in your focus to a single item. Instead of trying to generalize about a topic, select a single sentence from your textbook or an assigned reading. Start jotting down your thoughts about that sentence. Do you agree? Disagree? Why or why not? Then, pan out a little bit: is that sentence or idea consistent with the author’s ideas at large? Does it contradict anything that other philosophers/researchers/historians/etc. have said about the subject?
4. Switch locations. I’m a big fan of campus computer labs. They’re quiet, they’re full of other students who are typing away, and they’re far-removed from your dorm room and all its distractions. Also, because you’re working on a computer that’s not your own, you won’t have that lingering anxious desire to fix the labels in your music folder or organize the clutter on your desktop. Essentially, unless you get stuck on Reddit or some other addictive website, there’s not much to do in a campus computer lab except write your paper.
5. Write it by hand. I know, I know — it’s old-fashioned and you hate getting a case of the hand-cramps. But if you can flesh out just a full page (front and back!) of text on college-ruled notebook paper, that’s about 550 words (if the size of your handwriting is anything like mine, of course). Not a bad head start, eh? Then, you can type up that block of 550 words and electronically tweak it as you will.
6. Create an outline. If you’re writing a creative essay, you should probably avoid creating an outline. (In my opinion, truly outstanding essays grow organically with each subsequent idea building off of the last.) But if you need to deliver a garden-variety paper that argues a point or analyzes a topic, make an outline first. And not the kind with single words — make one with simple sentences that cover your most important points.
Best of all, creating an outline sometimes feels like a procrastination activity. After all, you’re not getting down to business and typing — you’re just making a list of really basic stuff that you want to include in your paper. But, out of all possible procrastination activities, it’s the best (and most productive) kind.
7. Start writing right after class. Unless you’ve got somewhere else to be, sit down right after class ends and get started on your paper. The material will be fresh on your mind. Even if you can only bang out 15 minutes’ worth of writing before you’re tired of the topic, that’s better than nothing. At least you’ll have something that’s not a blank Word document to work from.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure that your finished paper follows the guidelines of the assignment. But when you’re truly stuck and unable to get anything typed up onto that blank Word document, the above techniques will get you started.
So, what did you eat for breakfast? I had a chocolate chip granola bar.