How White Space Makes You a Better Writer

white space

There is a mysterious, magical element many writers have yet to discover in this world. Those who have wonder why it took so long to find. Those who haven’t have no idea what I’m talking about. Those who haven’t should read on.

This story is sad, unexaggerated and eye-opening. It has taken me several years since, and a lot of journaling and self-reflection, to feel comfortable opening up about it. I don’t have a lot of secrets. The ones I keep, I keep for good reasons. I write fiction and magazine articles because I don’t like talking, or writing, about myself much. Cover letters, you can therefore guess, are an absolute nightmare.

It’s different when a story, one of the autobiographical variety, has the potential to help someone else. So allow me to introduce you to the life I used to live, a life full of ink and color and straight, orderly lines. A life without rest; without reason; without even an inch of white space.

The Plan

When I was a junior in college, fall semester of my second year as a duel major, I bought Post-It notes. Hundreds of them. The smaller strips you use to tag pages in a book; small enough to mark your place; big enough to take up space. I used them to tag extracurricular calendar events in my planner, because I couldn’t fit them on each day’s lines along with my homework assignments.

My days were so full I had to color-coordinate every hour of my life. Light green notes meant I had meetings; yellow, music rehearsals and meetings with the student news editor. Purple notes meant I had articles due, and blue were reminders that I had a test to take or project to turn in. There were pink and orange, too, but I don’t remember what those meant. I don’t remember much of that semester at all, now that I think about it.

Overwhelmed with the desire to graduate on time and frustrated with scheduling, I petitioned to overload my academic schedule. On top of academics, layer a pinch of campus involvement. Professional development. Writing a novel. The most delicious, and most deadly, recipe for disaster.

By the end of that fall semester, I was 21 credits closer to graduation; 50,000 words closer to finishing another book. I had more talking points for a future job interview than anyone else I knew. My resume, as you have probably predicted by now, had no white space either. I dove into spring semester without looking back, and landed on solid concrete.

To make an already lengthy tale shorter, I got sick. My busyness literally started to eat me from the inside out. My grades started to suffocate. And I stopped writing, at least for myself, which was the reason I was trying so hard to excel in the first place. To be seen as a well-rounded young adult who could write, get straight As and graduate with two degrees in four years, that was what I wanted. That was the plan. That was, in all honesty, the worst possible outline I could have drafted for myself. Of all the terrible ideas I’ve ever had, that was the absolute worst.

The Infection

I suppose you could classify busyness as a disease, in the non-traditional sense. The desire to be everywhere, do everything, fill up a lifetime without making time to stop and see what you’re doing – it gets into your blood and poisons your brain. It shuts down your organs, sort of. You forget where you are, why you’re here, why you even joined this club in the first place. Yet like a disease, there is a cure. And like most cures, it is gradual, but promising.

Think of a book, the physical kind you hold in your hands and store on a shelf in your personal library. A book can’t go to print and end up on your shelf if there aren’t margins. Without margins, there would be numbers and letters running off pages without permission. A book would become only part of a book; less of a story; nothing worth picking up at Barnes & Noble at all.

What’s a margin? Oh. Just a bunch of white space.

If you want to be a writer, you already know the one requirement you have to hold yourself accountable for is to sit down and write something every once in awhile. If you’re worried about fitting it into your schedule, don’t pollute your white space with a desired word count. That white space is not for touching. Break your writing into smaller pieces. I’m writing only a few paragraphs of my novel a day right now. Do I have a deadline? Self-imposed, sure. But I’m not going to produce any good content if I try to write during my designated white space. And neither will you.

The Reflection

Why am I telling you all this? So you’ll boycott Post-It notes and OfficeMax? Please don’t; they are wonderful products and consumer providers, really. I’m telling you this not because I’m comfortable doing so (my face hurts from cringing so much while writing this), but because you need to understand how easy it is to fall into The Busyness Abyss. There is no white space there. There is no voice in your head telling you to close the laptop and let your story (and yourself) get some sleep. Everything is reversed, upside-down and blurry.

Though you might think you’re doing the right thing; working overtime to pay for grad school, giving up sleep to write the next award-winning YA novel; until you realize too late there is no “right.” But there is a definite “wrong.” I can say that from experience, even though I wish I couldn’t. While I’m all for eradicating the procrastination epidemic, there’s another important piece to consider. What you do today is important. What you do tomorrow, after taking time to rest today, is essential. What you did today, you set aside yesterday, on purpose.

It’s a cycle, but a beautiful one. One you will never give up once you discover how life-changing it can be.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

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