Who’s afraid of the big blank page?

Quite why people are surprised that academic writing is a challenge has always eluded me.  I think we are all lulled into thinking that writing is something we already know how to do, so we ask ourselves why should the kind of technical writing we have to do at universities be any different? Some people even think there are ‘born writers’ out there while the rest of us struggle to keep up, but believe me when I say that no one is born knowing how to write in an academic context. While we might have no problem drafting a tweet, writing an email to a friend or even a job application letter, there is nothing remotely innate about being able to write an effective abstract, a literature review, an academic paper, a thesis or a grant application.  Academic writing is a skill that has to be learnt like any other, and there is no magic about it.  Nor is it really that difficult to become proficient.  All it takes is some time and some work—just like everything else you’ve ever learned how to do.

I have worked with many people at universities who say they “can’t write”.  As these same people write all the time, what do they mean? Perhaps, they find it difficult to compose text, or order their thoughts on paper, or express their ideas economically and effectively.  Perhaps, it’s the mechanics of writing like grammar and punctuation that threaten them.  Or perhaps it’s the commonest difficulty of all—that of just getting started. So, let’s take a look at that one.

Just telling people to start is, of course, not much help because to start we must first overcome the most terrifying thing for a writer, that most terrifying of all monsters—the blank page.  It sits there silent, smirking, wallowing in its blankness, daring you to make a mark, but not just any mark, the right mark, the right and perfect sequence of first words. Prose of such clarity and purpose that you can be proud of it and that will do nothing less than exalt the souls of your readers.  Of course, that kind of responsibility is too much for any writer to cope with, but the blank page says nothing less will do. “Don’t even try to give me less than your best,” the monster sighs. Our apprehension turns to fear with much chewing of pencils and hovering of frightened fingers over the keyboard. And all the while the blank page is saying, “What are you waiting for? Oh, you mean you can’t do it—so, you’re not good enough?” and with that the monster taunts and destroys the last of your creative soul.

Now, let me tell you how to kill this beast.  All you have to do is write something—anything—on it.  Start by writing your name and the date and the time and the place and a sentence—any sentence—maybe a quote about writing or maybe a sentence or two that belong to someone else. Then, neatly list 1 to 10 down the left hand side and maybe add a separator line or two.  And the beast is not looking so smug anymore because it’s no longer looking so blank.  The monster is dead and you have begun.

A blank page is often a daunting prospect for many and blank pages are where we are most likely to pull those writing muscles. Start the exercise gently with anything and just begin. Don’t worry as you write if it’s not really making sense or if it’s not wholly on message.  That can all come later. Just starting in this way will not initially create anything worth reading, but it will set in motion a rhythm of words and phrases that will become your first draft.  As your muscle warms up, you can begin to exercise it properly and 50 or 100 or perhaps 200 words in you will start to make some sense. Keep going, maintain the momentum and before you know it you will have a page of something. It will not be perfect; it will almost certainly be ungrammatical in places or even illogical, but what it won’t be is a blank page.  And, that’s the hardest part done.

What you will have is a very first draft, and as you read it over, the key is not to be despondent.  There are two nuggets of wisdom that you should hold close when critiquing your own work.  The first is from Dr Samuel Johnson the 18th Century English writer of dictionary fame who said: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”  In other words, it’s going to be hard, because it’s supposed to be. The second is my particular favourite from the Nobel Prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway, who noted: “The first draft of anything is shit.” How true, Ernest. And this realisation perhaps prompted the adage amongst experienced writers that, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

There are other challenges to overcome and other skills to learn when it comes to writing but perhaps the most difficult for many people is just getting started. Having a simple strategy for dealing with that means you can go on and concentrate on everything else.  And there is a lot out there to help you.  Why not take a look at the online Study Guides I have written for the IAD:

Or check out my YouTube channel—Writing Space—where you will find short animated videos to help you with your English Grammar and Punctuation.

Allan Gaw, MD, PhD, FRCPath was an academic for over thirty years and is now a full-time writer. You can read more on his blog, The Business of Discovery.




November is Academic Writing Month. This annual event was established as a way to support academic writing via the #AcWriMo hashtag on Twitter. During November 2021, the Institute for Academic Development run WriteFest, a local contribution to this academic writing month, with the aim of bringing people together to raise awareness and celebrate academic writing.  If this blog has inspired you to start writing, book onto one of our online half day writing retreats or researcher writing hours: https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/research-roles/writefest 



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