Every writer I know has one part of the project they dislike. For me, it’s the start: I hate looking at a blank page.
For technical writing, my secret is simple: kick over into editing mode. I usually have an outline and reference text I can use – the previous version’s manual, blog posts, etc. I copy this text into my new document and highlight it (usually yellow background, bold red text) so I know that this is not original material and I cannot use it in any of my final output.
I then start re-writing. I edit the outline, adding notes and comments about topics I need to cover. I move the highlighted reference material around to better match the outline. I jump around as thoughts enter my head, not worrying (yet) about bringing any section to a complete state. What I’m shooting for is familiarization – I want to take this cold lump of clay and warm it up, make it my own over the first day or two.
At some point during this process, I begin writing complete sentences. I arrange them into paragraphs. I begin to rewrite the reference material and slowly replace highlighted chunks with clean, original copy. At this point, I have the flow of the document and I can sit down every day and productively add to it. From here, I have no worries.
This technique, though, doesn’t work well for fiction writing . . . or does it? I am finding ways to use the same idea, only with my fiction. The secret seems to be the outline.
In the technical writing world, the outline is closer to the classical Roman numeral outline we learned in school. I would like to thank Science Fiction author Tobias Buckell for challenging my pre-conceptions and sharing that he writes large novel outlines with thousands of words. In fiction, anything goes! Add character notes, ideas for plot points, research, whatever you like and need. Once I started doing this with my outlines, I found my source of fiction reference material.
I can use this technique in any writing tool; most of my technical writing happens in Microsoft Word. I copy in plain text, then paint heading styles to mark section headers. This allows me to use Outline View to move blocks of related text around quickly as the document flow takes shape.
For fiction, I prefer Scrivener. I import my hefty outline document and split it up into multiple documents, imposing whatever hierarchy I need. As I work, I use the status flags as I work on whatever is on my mind. I will write a bit of dialogue in the last scene, then make a note about a plot point somewhere in the middle. I work non-linearly for a day or two until I have the flow of the novel established.
Now I can turn my internal editor off and focus on writing fresh content until my first draft is complete.
Let me know if this helps you as it has helped me. What tricks do you use to conquer the blank page? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
About Devin Ganger
Devin is a professional messaging architect and IT consultant. He has written multiple books, chapters, white papers, and blog posts. He is currently working on fiction projects. Visit Devin Ganger on the 85K Writing Challenge.