6 Tips for Beating the Blank Page

I visited the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre a few weeks ago. (Dahl is, of course, the author of dozens of brilliant books for young people, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

I expected to spend the afternoon learning more about his stories, the inspiration for his characters.

But something else happened that I didn’t expect.

As I moved through the museum, listening to audio, reading and looking at various exhibits, I started jotting down aspects of Roald Dahl’s writing process. It proved to be truly inspirational, and I discovered a few elements of his process that are as important for digital writers and publishers today as they were for him when he was writing his books more than 50 years ago.

Ready to beat that blank page staring you in the face every day?

Here are six tips for you from the legendary writer Roald Dahl

1. Capture every idea

Roald Dahl was never without his notebook.

In it, he constantly wrote down ideas for stories, characters, and plots. Sometimes he would hear or read something interesting and he’d record it in case it might be useful for a story.

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre holds four of these notebooks. Some of the ideas they contain were used in stories, some were crossed out, and some were never used. For instance, the rate of a mouse’s heart beat (found in Matilda) is just the type of information that he would have recorded (and did).

Carrying something to record notes wherever you are is a great lesson for all writers. It needn’t be a paper notebook, but the principle is the same.

You never know where you’ll be when you get your next great idea for a post, a complete outline for an ebook, or just a seed to develop — and you can guarantee that when you do get these ideas you won’t be sitting at your desk waiting for them, pen poised.

Personally, I use the Evernote app on my phone, and on my laptop. As soon as I get an idea I record it by typing or even recording my voice or taking a picture. I’ll often mull it over for days or weeks and continue to expand it until I reach the point when I’m ready to sit down and write about the topic.

Did I lose ideas before using this? Definitely! I’d get an idea for a post with a few strong points, but by the time I’d get to writing it down, I’d forget some — or all — of it.

An added bonus of carrying an electronic notebook is that you can continue to add to a topic and rewrite the note as the idea develops.

I originally noted the idea for this post after being at the museum for an hour, but kept adding to it, and a few days later had subheadings added as well as a overall plan for the post. When I sat to write the first draft, the outline was already in place and I could begin to fill in the gaps.

2. Create a place to work

Roald Dahl built a writing shed in his back garden.

He referred to it as his “womb” and “nest.” He positioned his chair and heater, had a table with various memories and artifacts, and even made a special table for his lap so that everything was just right for him to go there and get lost in his writing.

Many writers head to a specific “nest” to do their writing. J K Rowling has talked about getting her writing done in the cafes of Edinburgh. Her early writing at least.

As a content producer, I believe it’s very important that you have somewhere you can go to work and write. This place separates your writing and your work from everything else that’s competing for your time and attention.

Some of you might have an office at home or in an office block where you go to write, others might have a specific chair at the kitchen table. The important thing is to have a place that’s got everything you need laid out around you, so you can focus on the writing at hand.

I’ve found that if I don’t have a specific place and just start writing in the living room, or another part of the house, I’m much more prone to distraction and much less productive.

Equally, in terms of work life balance, when you come away from your writing or working space it’s easier to leave your work behind. If you work just anywhere it’s difficult to separate working time from non-working time, which can lead to frustration on the part of anyone else at home as well as the risk of burnout.

3. Create a routine

Roald Dahl established a strict writing routine.

He went to his shed twice a day to do:

  • Two hours of focused writing every morning
  • Two hours of focused writing every afternoon

Creating a routine for your content creation is crucial in developing a habit. If you write inconsistently, especially early in your publishing career, you won’t build a rhythm. This means that your writing won’t flow or seem as easy, you’ll publish irregularly, and your readers won’t know when to expect to hear from you.

I’ve found that I enjoy writing early in the morning. My mind seems more focused and I find it easier to write. Later in the day, that all changes … I struggle to focus on my writing, the words come much slower and the quality of the articles I draft isn’t nearly as good.

So, I’ve built a daily routine where I do my writing very early in the day, even before breakfast. Then I work with clients and on projects, and come back later to edit the writing from the morning or the day before. This daily routine has helped me develop my writing habit and create better content.

Do you have a specific time of the day when you write best? If you’re not sure, try writing at different times of the day over the course of the next week. Pick a time when you feel you’re at your best and keep this as your writing time.

Roald Dahl wrote for four hours every day, but look at how productive those hours were, how many amazing stories he wrote. You’re much better off writing for two hours at your peak time than slogging it out for six hours at the wrong time — and not producing your best content.

4. Use the right tools

Roald Dahl chose very specific writing tools.

He wrote with yellow legal pads and Ticonderoga HB pencils. They were shipped from the U.S. to his house in England. He always kept a good supply of both in his writing shed and, at the start of each session, he sharpened several of the pencils so that everything was ready. No excuses. No distractions.

You may prefer not to write with a pencil, but the principle is the same for bloggers. What tools do you need to ensure you create? Disclaimer: You can (obviously) get carried away with this step, so be careful. I bring it up because it can be helpful to many writers.

I’ve already mentioned Evernote, which is great for recording notes as you prepare content ideas. I also use a mind mapping tool called MindMeister for expanding ideas and working on projects with coaching clients.

When it comes to writing your posts and publishing your work, get yourself set up with the free WordPress publishing platform and a design theme that works from StudioPress. Frame your writing well, make it readable, make it stand out to your audience.

Through your writing process you’ll want to ensure that you write for your readers, and not for search engines, but Scribe is an indispensable tool for helping you gently tweak, and spoon-feed your content to search engines (as well as making connections with other writers in your business, and much more). You can also use Premise to help convert that targeted traffic you receive into email subscribers or buyers of your products and services.

These tools (among others) take care of so much of the “heavy lifting” for you, so you can focus on writing.

5. Perfect your writing

Roald Dahl spent an immense amount of time editing his stories.

Let me share a few things about his editing process you’ve probably not heard before, culled from a talk at the museum, and later confirmed with the museum’s archivist:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
This story was originally called “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy.” Charlie found himself trapped within a life-sized chocolate mold as the chocolate was poured in. He was taken to Mr. Wonka’s mansion as a giant chocolate gift for his son. While there, Charlie was able to see out of the mould but couldn’t move, and he witnessed a robbery at the mansion. The next morning he was freed and told Mr. Wonka everything. In return, Wonka gave him a sweet shop to run. In later drafts the sweet shop became a factory, and the story of the mould and robbery were taken out.

The character Matilda was originally written to be a naughty child, the first chapter of the first draft of the story was called “Wickedness.” Matilda played tricks on her parents, purely for the sake of being nasty, and her parents were very nice. Roald Dahl decided this didn’t work at all, and completely rewrote the characters in reverse, so her parents were the ones who were nasty and she was a good child.

The Oompa-Loompas were originally called “Whipple-Scrumpets.” Dahl’s publisher didn’t think this name worked, so he changed it to Oompa-Loompas and turned the original name into a chocolate, “Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight.”

Just like Roald Dahl, as a content producer, it’s important to edit and redraft your work to create the very best content that you can. I’ve never written a post in one draft that I was happy to publish.

While writing, your mind should be focused on creating, and many successful writers and coaches suggest that when writing you shouldn’t even think about editing.

However, once you’ve created your post you can sleep on it, or at least leave it a few hours, and come back to it with fresh eyes. Look at the post after a time and see what works, what’s useful to your reader and what will compel them to take action. Then edit and redraft the post so it becomes the best thing you can write on that subject.

I know some writers hold the view that you shouldn’t edit too far, that you need to get to the point where you click ‘publish’ and move on to the next one, as any published post is better than any draft. But, don’t let yourself off the hook. If you can make an article better, share more information with your reader, make something clearer, more compelling, do it, you’ll find the outcome to be much better for yourself and your audience.

Roald Dahl also showed drafts of his stories to younger members of his family, to see if they resonated with his intended audience.

He showed an early draft of “Charlie and the Choclate Factory” to his nephew Nicholas, who said “Uncle Roald, I think it’s rotten!” The story was reworked until it appealed to young Nicholas.

It’s always worth asking someone else to review an important post for you, to get a second opinion of whether it works, whether it has enough value for your intended audience. You could ask a colleague, business coach or even a friendly customer, the response could help you improve the post and might reveal further points that you could address in future posts.

6. Do the work

Roald Dahl did his work.

He followed his routine for many years and created some of the most enduring, best-loved children’s stories we have today, many of which have been developed into films.

It can be very easy for a content producer to fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Reading lots of articles about publishing online, listening to podcasts, watching videos … these are all great for developing your knowledge. But none of it will help you achieve your goals if you don’t do the work.

You can have the best tools in the world, and even a notebook full of ideas, but you need to actually create the content, publish it, and promote it if you want to grow your business through content.

As Roald Dahl himself said:

The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all, there is nobody to scold him.

The bottom line …

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing stories for children about Oompa-Loompas, or sharing your knowledge by publishing content to market your business — collecting ideas, creating a space to work and a routine, redrafting your content and getting it published are crucial.

What would you add to the list that helps you with your content goals? Please let me know in the comments …

About the Author: Robert Peters is a small business advisor, coach and consultant, and owner of Fresh Eyes Consultancy. He helps business owners grow sustainable and profitable businesses. Sign up for a free copy of his guide on how to avoid the feast and famine cycle of sales, and take the stress out of attracting new customers.