Writing Ugly: The Secret to Overcoming the Blank Page

When it comes to writing, sometimes getting started is the hardest part.

It can result in hours of procrastination, sweaty palms, and a last-minute scramble as a deadline approaches.

So what’s behind the first draft intimidation — and how can writers overcome it?

The Confidence Issue

If you don't have a lot of confidence in your writing, it's probably not something you look forward to. In fact, you probably put it off as long as possible.

The bright side is: You're not alone in that feeling.

  • Research shows that only 1 in 4 high school seniors write at a proficient level.
  • At the college level, fewer than 50% of college seniors feel their writing has improved over the course of their secondary education.
  • At the professional level, the National Commission on Writing discovered companies spend more than $3.1 billion each year on remedial writing courses.

WHOA. That's a lotta dollars.

But that doesn't mean all hope is lost.

The good news is: People in the "writing sucks!" boat can overcome the self-doubt that keeps them from putting their thoughts into writing. Here's how...

Writing Ugly

Getting an ugly first draft written down creates a starting place for improvement. It doesn’t have to be pretty, make sense, or go into detail yet—it just needs to be on the page.

I’ve seen lots of great posts before that talk about the idea of “writing ugly” at a high level, but not many that really spell out how to go about doing it.

That’s why I wanted to share the strategy I use when writing thousands of words for different clients and publications.

First things first: Create a framework.

1. Framework

Before you try to get too in-depth, create an ugly framework. It should look something like this:

  •  Intro
  • Background
  • Specific Points/Ideas/Tips (one per paragraph)
  • Conclusion

This step will help you get rid of the empty page and allows you to visualize what elements you need to build upon. It’s your roadmap.

(I did a video demo of how I do this step by step using Airstory...it's right here if you want to see that.)

2. Middle First

Next, you’ll want to focus on the middle section of your outline. Start here with fresh attention. Nail down the basic examples or points you want to walk through, and leave the rest (including the title, intro, and closing) for later.

Then, start filling out each paragraph one at a time. Dump it all into your draft, but try to keep it organized. Remember: This doesn’t have to be pretty. Just get the basic information down.

3. Background

Once you have the middle section complete, look at it as a whole to determine what kind of background information you need to share at the beginning so that the reader has relevant context before diving into the bulk of what you’ve written.

This could be a fictional scenario, a story, a quote — just something that explains why in the world you’re writing what you’re writing.

4. Intro & Conclusion

These two parts come last. They should be similar, but not identical. Like what they say about eyebrows! "They're sisters, not twins."

Your introduction welcomes the reader with a conversational tone, while the conclusion goes over what you explained and reminds him or her of the one main takeaway.

5. Editing

When your ugly first draft is complete, you can then go back in to polish things up and perfect your work — but not before then. Self-editing while you write is the enemy of completion.

If you need an extra set of eyes to look it over and give suggestions, ask for help. They might catch things you missed or have a different perspective that spots the holes or confusing elements within your piece.

And finally, give yourself enough time to go back after a day or two to check and re-edit with fresh eyes. As the idea rolls around in your mind over the course of a few days, you might have new thoughts on additions for your piece or arguments that could be made against a point you’re making.

The Bottom Line: By embracing the ugly first draft, you can write more efficiently — and over time, you’ll notice that the process becomes simpler until you never worry about the blank page again.

P.S. Yeah Write Club has officially launched! Sign up and become part of the club.

This article originally appeared in my newsletter, A Cup of Copy. Sign up and get these free tips sent right to your inbox every other Wednesday.