Never Face a Blank Page—Easing the Transition from Research to Writing

One pain point for many writers is the transition from doing research to actually getting some words on the page. You can ease this transition by seeing writing as an act of transformation rather than creation.

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More specifically, you can approach research and writing as a continuous process of:

  • Finding sources—what’s already been written and said about your chosen topic
  • Extracting juicy quotes from those sources and adding them to your commonplace book
  • Rearranging those quotes and adding your own ideas

The beauty of this process is that at no point do you face a blank page or screen. The act of “writing” is simply revising the quotes you’ve already collected.

There are many successful writers who use this method. Consider two: Steven Berlin Johnson and Cal Newport.

Steven Berlin Johnson on how to write a book

Steven Berlin Johnson is a science writer and author of several books, including Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. (He also wrote a nice article about the history and uses of commonplace books.)

In a masterful post about how to write a book, Steven almost makes the writing process sound fun:

  • To begin, he reads widely about whatever interests him.
  • While reading, he grabs interesting “snippets”—quotations from web pages, digital books, and printed books (making sure to note the source of each quote).
  • Then he throws these quotes into one big document with no hint of organization.

When it’s time to write, Steven reads through his collection of snippets and groups them into possible chapters. He describes this as working with “pieces of a puzzle that’s coming together”:

Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I’m looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. It’s a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.

Cal Newport on writing from a flat outline

Cal writes the Study Hacks Blog and has several books to his credit.

One of Cal’s posts is about avoiding traditional multi-level outlines when writing a research paper. As an alternative, he recommends that you simply create a list of topics that you want to cover and arrange them in a logical order—a topic skeleton.

Your next step is research—collecting quotes from reputable sources. Then, when you’re satisfied that you have material, do a “quote dump”:

In the document containing your topic skeleton: start typing, under each topic, all of the quotes from your sources that you think are relevant. Label each quote with the source it came from.

With this collection of topics and related quotes—a topic-level outline—you’re ready to begin the first draft:

When you write your paper, don’t start from a blank document. Instead, make a copy of your topic-level outline and transform it into the finished paper. For each topic, begin writing, right under the topic header, grabbing the quotes you need as you move along. Remember, these quotes are right below you in the document and are immediately accessible.

This is essentially the same process as Steven Johnson’s:

  • Gather interesting quotes.
  • Arrange them by topic.
  • Create a first draft by adding transitions between quotes and expressing ideas in your own words.

The result is an original piece of writing. And it begins with a relatively simple copy-and-paste job rather than the terror of an empty page.

Have you ever done something like this? How did it work?

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