Dr Ross English gained his PhD in 1999 from the Department of American Studies at the University of Keele, researching environmental policy in the United States Congress. It was his third degree from Keele, following an Bachelors in History and Politics and a Masters in United States History and Politics. Following a short spell working in government he joined the University of Reading as lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations and the Department of American Studies, where he stayed for seven years. From there he moved to the University of Sussex to work in researcher development with the research council funded organisation Vitae while continuing to lecture part-time first at Birkbeck and then at the University of Westminster. In 2013 he moved into researcher development full-time and now works as Researcher Development Advisor in the Graduate School, King’s College London. The Researcher Development Unit offers a wide range of courses and other opportunities for postgraduate research students and research staff to develop the skills they need in their current positions and future careers. Ross is the Researcher Development Advisor with responsibility for postgraduate research students and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tyranny of the Empty Page
How I learned to stop worrying and start writing
The irony. A promise was given to produce a piece on ‘the tyranny of the empty page’. One where I explain how a writer stops fretting and start writing. An afternoon was set aside for the task – this afternoon! Or at least the one that has just gone past as, since the blank document first sprang expectantly onto my screen, the following things have occurred:
- two cups of coffee made and drunk. Cup washed up (yes, washed up!)
- five emails answered
- Facebook scanned three times, Twitter twice
- four newspaper articles read in full
Words written? Zero.
There lies the rub. The affliction so apparently common to scholars of endlessly staring at an empty page, unable to write, is not an experience I recognise. The empty page is there, of course, it’s just that I don’t see it. It’s either hidden behind other windows or apps or I have vacated the area; pushed out of my chair and from the room by an irresistible force that never feels the need to give a reason.
To confess this, is slightly awkward. I facilitate workshops on ‘writing up the thesis’, on ‘maintaining motivation’, on ‘time-management’ all of which inevitably touch on the subject of procrastination and self-sabotage. In each of those I dispense advice aimed to help researchers stop work avoidance, get writing and avoid the tyranny of the empty page. Clearly a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, then.
The starting point, it is said, is to work out why the words are so reluctant to come. At times it is because we don’t know what it is we want to say. In those cases, taking a step back and moving to a different form – mind-mapping, a conversation, post-it notes, whatever works for you – can help free the ideas without any expectation of them appearing in clear prose. Some other times we know the points we need to make but find the appropriate words out of reach. At a fundamental level this – finding the right words – is just the process of writing, but starting that process can seem impossible when allied with a fear of failure.
Fear of failure is not something most of us will like to admit but it is an extremely common affliction, especially within academia. Often it won’t exhibit itself as crippling self-doubt (though that is known) but rather as a nagging suspicion, just below the surface, that “I’m not as good at this as I pretend”. That feeling of being somewhat of an imposter is one which can be easily papered-over for most of the time but not when we start to write. Because when we write there is no hiding place and the words which hit the page will ultimately be read by someone – supervisor, colleagues, editor – and then our scholarly failings will be revealed in all their awfulness.
Of course, all of that is in our head. We should want to reveal our faults and limitations (these qualities are universal) and find out where they hide so that document v.2 will be better than v.1 and v.3 better than both. Every single scholar in history has faced criticism of their work, it is how we improve. Getting feedback on work before it is ‘right’ is a crucial part of the process; to try and put the ego on hold long enough that we can ask people to point out what is wrong with our work, rather than hoping for their praise.
However, such reasoning is often of little help when the words won’t come and our fight or flight response is being won by the latter.
So what to do? At a simple level, this is about trying to separate process from results – to write with the knowledge that no-one will ever read those terrible words. This is the draft of the draft that will be re-written before anyone else lays eyes on it. (Of course, this does mean starting more than a day before the deadline). Attempt to remove the expectation that the words need to arrive on the page in a state of perfection.
It is about breaking the tyranny of the blank document, getting words – any words – down on the page without immediately deleting them for not being good enough. Maya Angelou once said that when she finds it hard to start…
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”
Some use ‘free-writing’, splurging their thoughts on the page without form, then picking apart the results by turning the promising bits into more structured sentences before using those as a basis for draft one. All of these approaches are simply people finding their own way to stop worrying about the finished project and to start writing.
The thing that works best for me is to write about the writing and why I can’t start. To put down on the page any thought that comes to mind about what I am trying to do and why I am finding it so difficult. These rants mostly begin “I don’t know what to write”, but slowly the things I want to say are forced onto the page – badly written, poorly clarified, but there – and that’s the first step taken.
And that is what I did here. Started writing about not being able to write. The irony.