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.

Still mystified after essay feedback? Try an essay health check.

Are you wondering how you can improve your grades in philosophy essays?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why you keep getting the marks that you do, or why you always fall just short of a grade boundary. Perhaps you understand why you got the feedback you did on a particular essay, but you need help working out how you can put that into use in future work.

I offer a detailed personalised essay “health check.” Here’s how it works:

1. Contact me for a quote

2. After we have agreed to proceed, you send me:

  • The essays you have submitted so far (and any others that are in progress)
  • All marks, comments and other feedback you have received on the essays
  • Your course outline and/or module outlines
  • Your department’s marking criteria
  • Anything else you think is relevant

3. I read all your essays, and use my experience as a tutor and lecturer in philosophy to determine areas of strength, and areas that require more work. I send you a written report detailing what areas need more work, and what you need to do to improve.

4. After reading your report, you can (a) leave it at that and work independently on the areas that need improvement, (b) request written exercises and advice tailored to your needs, (c) request subject-specific or study skills tuition. I also offer a proofreading service if you want to reach towards your full potential with academic writing in English.

Why philosophical writing needs philosophical proofreading and copy editing.

It has been a while since my last update here at Flourishing Philosophy. I have had a steady stream of tutoring, proofreading, and other philosophical work. I have also just started my training as a counsellor. This is a new and exciting thing, with a lot of connections to my philosophical work, and I will certainly post some thoughts about that here at some point.

Today though, I want to say a little bit about what I do when read philosophical writing for clients.

You may have used a proofreading or copy editing services before. Typically a proofreader will check your work for errors in formatting, grammar, and spelling when it is close to its final form. A copy editor will check your material for grammar and spelling, but also for stylistic problems. There is a little more to it than that, and the distinction is not clear-cut, but that’s the basic gist of it. When I do work of this kind, I don’t make a rigid distinction between proofreading and copy editing, because each client’s requirements are individual. I calculate my rates according to how long it will take me to complete the work, and will sometimes factor in discounts based on the client’s individual circumstances.

So why would you choose to have your work read by someone who is a specialist in philosophy? There are any number of reasons for this, but I will mention three.

The first (and least interesting) is that I am likely to be familiar with technical terminology that you use. It might be important, for example, that your work is being read by someone who understands the difference between egoism and egotism, or between cynicism and scepticism.

The second reason is that philosophical audiences are particularly sensitive to ambiguities in language, and that this can sometimes make or break your writing. When I do basic proofreading, I won’t usually identify all the ambiguities that appear in a piece of writing, while I will do my best to check for any ambiguity or unclarity when copy editing (as I said, the difference is not clear-cut, and I can do as much or as little of this as required). However, even correcting grammatical errors can sometimes reveal these ambiguities: something as simple as the placement of punctuation can make a dramatic difference to the meaning of a sentence. A non-specialist reader will typically ‘correct’ this error to whatever feels right or looks most elegant on the page. When I encounter these cases, I take a little time to consider the range of possible alternatives and make several suggestions for how the sentence might be correctly worded and punctuated. This is obviously more useful than a process that results in you having to go back and correct all the corrections, but it does more than that: sometimes it can highlight important distinctions that can greatly improve the quality of your argument.

The third reason for using the services of someone who knows your discipline is perhaps the most contentious: style matters! I don’t just mean that it helps people to understand your words (although that is obviously true) but that a philosopher’s style of writing is not easily divorced from the substance of what they are saying. Many of my favourite philosophers create a whole conceptual landscape, and their writing invites you to enter their world and have a look around. Writing style, especially the use of metaphors and imagery, can open up new ways of seeing. One of the ways that I can help you is by trying to engage with your whole project, and helping you to convey your arguments in a way that will invite your audience into your conceptual world. For example, when you are talking about a concept or phenomenon, are you reaching for a general atmosphere that is more mechanical or more organic? Are you using the language of qualia, phenomena, appearances, or subjective experience? Often, terms that might superficially be taken as near-synonyms carry a rich set of associated images or historical connections. By using the services of someone who is experienced in philosophical teaching and research, you can more easily create the conceptual landscape that you need.