Dealing with the blank page: how to write philosophy (and probably other stuff) when you really don’t feel like it

I was going to start by saying that everybody gets this. Actually though, some people don’t seem to get this. I know a small number of people come to writing with a beautifully worked-out idea, calmly open a blank Word document, and just write. As the well-turned prose flows from their fingers, they smile calmly to themselves as the thought is perfectly transferred from their mind to the page.

I am not one of those people, and most people aren’t.

Instead, you may have a vague idea of what you want to write about, a fully-formed idea that doesn’t easily translate to the linear format of an essay or article, or maybe just an essay question with a looming deadline.

The thought of starting can be so unsettling that you do almost anything to avoid it: your house gets sparklingly clean, your email inbox empty, awkward bits of admin complete. When you do start, knowing where or how to start feels impossible. You type out a title, write a sentence, delete it, write another sentence, and so on.

If you are at all like me, the degree of this issue fluctuates. Getting started is always hard, but there are times when I can get past those issues, and other times when it feels like attempting to pass solid metal through a meat grinder.

Here are a few things that help me with the more difficult times:

  • Make yourself a rule that anything that goes on the page counts as writing. So do any handwritten notes or plans that you make in order to get your ideas out.
  • Brainstorm on paper: just write down anything you can think of that is at all relevant to the topic. Once you have those written down in front of you, you have something that you can select bits from, and try to arrange into some kind of rough structure.
  • Write section headings in your document: if you aren’t feeling up to composing sentences today, just try to think about what you need to do in order to give a good answer to the question (whether it’s an essay question, or a question that you have posed to yourself). Turn each stage of this into a section heading. These section headings can be really boring at this stage: you can always change them to something a bit jazzier later on. If all that you have at the end of the day is a title and a series of section headings, you have already made a lot of progress. Show some self-belief and save this document as your article or essay.
  • On that note, if you just have a topic, not a question, set yourself a question. Giving yourself a definite question to answer helps you to think more clearly about what an answer would involve.
  • Collect relevant quotations and stick them at the end of your document. You can delete any that you don’t end up using. Other people’s writing doesn’t count as doing your own writing when it comes to issues around plagiarism, but it does when it means using properly attributed quotations to get the ball rolling.
  • If you have section headings and quotations, but still don’t feel like writing sentences, move your quotations so that they are under the relevant section headings.
  • Once you have section headings, and quotations under each heading, think about whether a reader would be able to see how they connect to each other. What do you need to say to make it a coherent whole? Where do you need quotations to illustrate something else? Which points are left out or unclear? What else belongs under this section heading? This can just be instructions to yourself rather than actual content. I usually use square brackets for this, e.g. [say something here about why Iris Murdoch thinks that love is connected to accurate perception]
  • By the end of this, you should have a broad structure, an idea of the method for answering the question, and a set of little instructions to yourself for little tasks that you need to complete. This means that your job is immediately less daunting. Instead of “Write something about contemporary virtue theory and psychotherapy” (what I’m attempting to do right now) you have a long list of little tasks: “[describe Plato’s cave], [explain how the cave is an analogy for philosophy – seeing things accurately], [say why this is a theme in psychotherapy too], [explain reality principle in Freud], [talk about discounting in transactional analysis], etc.
  • An advantage of this approach is that if you get called away from writing by other stuff (your job, kids, teaching, etc.) returning to it is a little easier. You don’t need to spend a lot of time retracing your steps and trying to remember where you were going.
  • You might not have instructions for the whole thing. Sometimes you need to get writing before you know quite where it will go. If you’re feeling that way, start doing what the stuff in square brackets tells you to do, and use your quotations to guide you.
  • If you get stuck, this might be because you’ve reached a tricky point. Maybe you suddenly see that there’s a question that you need to answer in order to move forward. Write this question down. Go away and think about it over a cup of tea if you need to.
  • If you’re stuck on one bit, move on to another section. Don’t worry that you’re leaving something incomplete. It often seems less intimidating when it’s a little gap in a more complete work, and what you say further down the line might help you see why you were stuck earlier.
  • Many general guides for overcoming writer’s block suggest simply free-associating and writing down anything that occurs to you. This can sometimes be helpful for philosophy, but some people find that it doesn’t help them move to something more structured or rigorous. Experiment with this and see where it gets you. You might want to try thinking from a totally different angle: what images pop into your head when you’re reading this philosophical work? What does Plato’s cave smell like? What else do you think Spinoza was doing that day? These things probably won’t help you get closer to an answer to your question, and will (in the case of traditional philosophy) probably end up being deleted, but what they can do is help you to get unblocked. Imaginative exercises involving your senses and emotions can get you into a place where the dry ideas that you are tackling feel more alive – they have context, history, and importance for life. Sometimes thinking like this can even help you to see a problem from a new angle.

These are just a few ideas, and you can find plenty of other advice on academic writing here and elsewhere, but I hope some of them might be helpful. Try to remember that even the greatest minds in history have been stuck from time to time, and don’t feel too discouraged.

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