Conquering the Tyranny of the Empty Page: For Those Applying to “100 Best Lists”– and Everyone Else

Today’s entry will get you started thinking about the essay question in the “Working Mother” and “NAFE” Best Company lists. But really, it’s Writing 101. Even if you’re not planning on applying for these lists this year, you probably face the occasional writing task. The tips here apply to any blank page you may need to conquer.

If you’re applying for the Working Mother “100 Best Companies” list,  you’re facing at least one 2,500-word essay. If you’re applying for the NAFE “Top Companies for Executive Women list at the same time, congratulations—you win the 2-essay jackpot.

You’re probably not looking forward to writing these essays. The fact is, even professional writers like me will do pretty much anything we can to delay the moment when we’re face-to-face with an blank page. (That’s why they invented Facebook and You-Tube, right?) Writers have all sorts of techniques for conquering this fear. Some are highly personal and idiosyncratic; others are widely agreed upon. You may have come up with your own methods over the years—I’d love to hear what they are. Here are some of the techniques I use to get myself going:

Write an outline. Or don’t. Outlines work great for some people and if you’re one of those people, go for it. But don’t be shamed by your memories of English class into struggling to produce an outline if it’s just not in you. Sometimes, it’s impossible to organize your thoughts until a much later stage of the writing process. The most I do when starting a writing project is to jot down a list of ideas I hope to cover—in no particular order. I keep this list at the top of the page and add to it or revise it as I go.

Put something down—anything. Sometimes the first thing I do is type a row of nonsense letters, or type a stern command for myself to get started: “Ok, party’s over, let’s get going.” Often, I restate the question (literally re-typing the question I’m answering). There’s something about the very act of typing that fires up one’s brain. I’m sure there’s some physiological explanation for this, but all I know is, it works.

Start in the middle. The second-hardest part of any written piece is usually the opening. (The hardest is the conclusion, but you’ll leave that to the end, anyhow.) So forget about it. In fact, unless you are the detailed-outliner type, don’t worry about order at all. Just pick one of the topics you want to cover in the essay and start writing. In the old days, writers kept scissors and tape handy at all times. Thanks to Microsoft Word, we can now do the same thing with no muss, no fuss.

Turn off your internal editor. You know the one I mean. We all have that little voice telling us it’s not professional enough, it’s not elegant enough, it’s just no good… Switch that voice right off!  You’ll want to turn it back on , later, but the job of a first draft is just to get it down on paper. Let yourself be silly, if you want: “At ABC Company, we have the best darned child care program in the world!” You’ll change it later (I hope). But the fact that you have a child care program has made it onto the page and now it’s an easy step to begin describing it.

Skip that word you can’t think of, or that name you need to look up. If the word refuses to get off the tip of your tongue, or you’re missing an important fact, fuggedaboutit. Find a way to notify your future self that something’s missing, and move on. My first drafts are littered with “xx,” the quick-and-easy way I’ve chosen to represent a missing piece. I use Word’s highlighter function liberally, too, to remind myself of passages I need to come back to.

(When “later” finally arrives, I also have a trick for getting hold of that word that still stubbornly refuses to reach my conscious brain: I think of the word that comes closest to the one I’m looking for—even if it’s not at all right—and type it into Word’s thesaurus function. Often, the word I’m after appears. But if it doesn’t, there’s usually a word on the list that’s a bit closer to what I’m after, so I look that word up in the thesaurus, continuing this way until I find exactly the word I had in mind.)

If you get stuck, call me. Ok, that’s a different sort of self-help trick, but it certainly is an option. I’d be happy to help you with your Working Mother or NAFE essay, or with (almost) any other empty page you’re looking at just now. I can help talk you through it, I can take what you’ve done a step further, or I can take the writing off your hands, altogether. Check out my website to learn more about what I do, in general, learn how I can help you with Working Mother, in particular, or just contact me.

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