You sit down to write, but can’t come up with anything good enough to besmirch the pristine whiteness of the blank page.
Perhaps you know what you want to write about. Even so, your inner critic bashes everything you propose. For every keystroke you make, there’s a backspace.
Once this encounter with the empty page happens a few times, limiting thoughts barge in. You’ve got writer’s block. Maybe you’re not cut out to do this. You’ve got nothing to write, so why torture yourself?
This may have nothing to do with your being a writer, and everything to do with what’s in your “writing tank.”
It’s not the empty page we’re afraid of—it’s the empty mind.
Where the words come from
Before words appear on paper, the ideas form in your head. (Sometimes those ideas don’t clarify until you put them into the words. For me, writing is a physical manifestation of deep thought.)
When writing is fun and fulfilling, the words emerge from different areas of our minds as images, emotions, and memories. Ideas connect and combine and invite their friends to the party.
Creativity results from messy, unstructured thoughts colliding and connecting.
But it’s tough to get into the right frame of mind—one in which those thoughts rise to the surface, so you can capture them in the containers of the right words.
That’s why it’s often best to prime the pump before you face the blank page of a draft, whether you’re writing a blog post or a book chapter.
First, prime the pump
Back when people hand-pumped water out of wells, they had to put a small amount of water in the pump to get the suction going.
That’s what the phrase “priming the pump” comes from. To start the water flowing, add water.
It works well for writing. To get your writing flowing, add words and ideas. Starting working with the things you want to write about. Prime your pump before you begin a first draft of anything, before you face that blank page.
In the writing recipe outlined in The Writer’s Process, this activity falls into the research phase. This is inner research. You rummage around in the attic of your mind to get the words flowing.
Everyone will find different ways to prime their pumps.
My favorite pump-priming activity is writing. (No surprise there.) I use “directed journaling” or freewriting—writing something just for myself to put ideas into words, and welcome fresh ideas altogether.
Most of the stuff in my freewriting file gets thrown away, and that’s fine. It’s served its purpose. Bits and pieces may end up in the final draft. But that’s a lucky accident, and not my intention when writing.
Your inner research might look different than mine. You could:
- Write in a journal as preparation for a blog post
- Write a blog as preparation for a book
- Use dictation or voice recognition software to capture ideas you talk through and transcribe them into words.
- Use mind mapping to brainstorm ideas onto paper
- Discuss your topic with another person
The activities outlined above work best early in the writing process, when you’re sorting through and capturing your thoughts.
Once you have those ideas and want to refine them, you can turn to advanced pump-priming activities that also contribute to your overall platform. These might include:
- Teaching: Create a webinar or host a session for your local library.
- Speaking: Find opportunities to speak publicly on your topic.
These activities involve an audience that can offer valuable input as you refine and explore your ideas. These experiences may change how you think about and present your ideas. They almost always make the work better.
When you’ve primed the pump, the blank page isn’t frightening—it’s an invitation to bring the swirl of ideas into the world.
Prime the pump, then let the words flow.
You can start pump-priming any time, even well before you plan to buckle down and start drafting. If you’d like to write a big project like a book, you can start putting your thoughts on it into words right away. Today.
What will you do to prime the pump for your next writing project?
For more on the writing recipe, see The Writer’s Process.