Why are blank pages so scary?

Whether it is in the form of a book to be written, a presentation to be delivered, a song to be scribed or any other creative output.

The sight of a blank page is enough to prevent many people from ever getting started.

But why is this?

While there is little research on the topic apart from a few books and academic assessments, we can piece together the puzzle through our understanding of how the mind finds and builds new ideas.

Forming new ideas

The panic of pressure to fill a blank page is partially a trick that our brain plays on us, based on how it forms new ideas.

Ideas are new combinations between existing pieces of knowledge in your mind, and when the brain is juggling several pieces of knowledge simultaneously, it easily forms these new connections.

However, when you are faced with a blank page, there is no stimulus to tell the brain which information and experiences to begin with.

blank pages can be scary for even the most creative people

blank pages can be scary for even the most creative people

It becomes overwhelmed by options and cannot select where to begin addressing the challenge, or even understand what the challenge actually is.

Self Judgement

The other reason for writer’s block (including most other creative endeavors in addition to writing) is the creator’s self-inhibition and criticism, which judges every potential idea and starting point as not good enough.

One of the most important pieces of recent creativity research by Charles Limb showed that there were regions of the brain which were turned off when Jazz musicians began to improvise. The major region was the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, which is an area of the brain which is essentially involved in self-censorship / self-inhibition. This shows that there are areas of the brain which is constantly reviewing and censoring the ideas being developed, and will actively prevent these from being made consciously aware.

Additionally, our upbringing has taught us to only give the right answer to challenges. This leads to many people, especially introverts, being afraid of voicing their views and ideas as they worry that they will be judged.

Therefore, for many creative challenges, people will be constantly judging every potential outcome and idea as soon as it comes into their mind. The issue here is that every new idea is rough to begin with, before it is given time and focus to be combined, improved and refined. So in the first imperfect moment when it is first seen, it will be judged as not good enough, rejected and frustration will set it as to why you came up with such a bad idea in the first place.

Inflexible rules and plans for creativity

According to clinical research by Mike Rose, one thing which distinguishes writers who regularly suffer from writer’s block from those who manage to write more freely is that they impose on themselves a set of “rules” about what the creative output needs to accomplish, and the process to get there.

These self-imposed rules (either directly taught in school or self-induced through experience, even if they are not productive) make the creative process inflexible, by forcing the author to try and produce the perfect end result from the outset, without giving the mind space and time to refine the ideas.

One such example was a student called ‘Ruth’, who trapped herself with her own rules of what good output should be like:

In high school, Ruth was told and told again that a good essay always grabs a reader’s attention immediately. Until you can make your essay do that, her teachers and textbooks putatively declaimed, there is no need to go on. For Ruth, this means that beginning bland and seeing what emerges as one generates prose is unacceptable. The beginning is everything. And what exactly is the audience seeking that reads this beginning? The rule, or Ruth’s use of it, doesn’t provide for such investigation. She has an edict with no determiners. Ruth operates with another rule that restricts her productions as well: if sentences aren’t grammatically “correct,” they aren’t useful. This keeps Ruth from toying with ideas on paper, from the kind of linguistic play that often frees up the flow of prose. These two rules converge in a way that pretty effectively restricts Ruth’s composing process.

As another example, student ‘Mike’ tries to plan his creative work, but then struggles when the plan or original concept needs to be adjusted (as will ALWAYS happen in a creative endeavor):

Mike believes (correctly) that one must have a plan, a strategy of some sort in order to solve a problem. He further believes, however, that such a plan, once formulated, becomes an exact structural and substantive blueprint that cannot be violated. The plan offers no alternatives, no “sub-routines.”

Some rules and plans can definitely help with the creative process, by providing guidance on what sort of knowledge and structure can be combined in new ways.

However, strict rules which emphasise the “correct” structure and criteria for an idea at the beginning will instead be detrimental and lead to more frustration when ideas come which don’t fit the pre-planned rules.

The solution to writer’s block

The best solution:

Just get started and go, without worrying about making it perfect the first time.

Just get something (anything) down on to the blank page so that it isn’t blank anymore.

You could start with a couple of jumping off points, such as:

  1. The singular topic or focus word is written in the middle of the page, from which you draw out related words and potential ideas in a mind map around it.
  2. A starting phrase, like “Wouldn’t it be great if…” and a list of random solutions (no matter how rough or crazy they are)
  3. A trigger phrase for a story, such as “Once upon a time…”, which you then follow with the first thing that comes into your mind

Once you begin to have something on the blank canvas, no matter what it is, the brain will begin elaborating on it.

New connections will be formed and new ideas will gradually begin to flow.

Just don’t stop yourself from getting them onto the page, knowing that the majority of them will be ignored and thrown out later on, but a few may evolve into something great.

The other important thing to remember is that it is totally ok for your first ideas on the page to be rubbish. All ideas are born imperfect, and need time, effort and focus to refine into something beautiful.

By knowing this, it gives you first drafts permission to escape the initial wall of judgment, knowing that they will be reviewed and refined before they are released to the world.

So go and burst through that block.

If you know someone who suffers from writer’s block, please share this article with them.

Have you ever felt paralyzed by how to start? Experienced writer’s block? If so, tell me in the comments your tip on how you overcame it.

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Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as the world's #5 Innovation blogger in 2016, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.