The Fear of the Blank Page

The cursor on your son’s laptop blinks back at him, intimidatingly. His assignment is due in a few days, and he doesn’t know where to start. Panic begins to overwhelm him. He doesn’t know how to put his thoughts into words. He doesn’t know where to begin. It’s clear he is stressed and overwhelmed by the task at hand.

Stressful moments such as these can cause both physiological and psychological reactions in your son when he considers what is expected of him. Regardless of how stressed he might be, his cognitive assessment of whether he can cope with the task at hand is an important part of him tackling the blank page and therefore successfully completing his assignment.

The fear of the blank page is a very real thing. Many writers, both experienced and novice, have come up with extraordinary routines so that they don’t fall victim to the overwhelm when faced with a page of nothing. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. George Orwell wrote lying down. Truman Capote would never begin or end a piece of writing on a Friday. And Victor Hugo put himself under house arrest in order to finish ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.

Our boys may not require some of these extremes, but how can you help your son when he is experiencing that moment of blank-page despair?

  • Chunking: break the task into chunks. Get your son to start with the easiest part of the assessment, then move on to hardest section of the task next.
  • The hour of power: pretend that your son is stuck to the chair and he has 40 minutes to write a certain number of words. Then he can have a 20-minute break.
  • Bullet points: write down (without worrying about grammar, sentence structures or vocabulary) as much as your son can think about the topic. Once he has done that, take some coloured highlighters and colour code it according to sections of the task or common themes.
  • Change of scenery: get your son to move to a different part of the house to do his assignment. This might be outside or at the kitchen table, rather than holed away in his bedroom.
  • Concept map the task: draw shapes on a piece of paper the different parts that the task requires. In each shape, write down the evidence or quotes associated with each part. This will then help your son to build his thesis.
  • Snacks and drinks: keep your son motivated by providing healthy snacks and the plenty of hydration.

It’s a very normal for your son to experience the cognitive intensity of having to complete assessment items to a deadline, particularly when he has more than one assessment item due simultaneously. In the words of Anne Lamott, the author of the writing memoir Bird by Bird: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”

The blank page can be daunting, so it is important that we normalise this fear, and encourage our son to put pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, and just begin with what might be a terrible first effort. But at least it’s a start and he is no longer working with a blank page.

Catherine Cuddihy
Dean of Academics