Getting Started


One of the most common questions I get from writers is, “How do I get started?” The question means different things to different people. For some it means, “How do I get all these ideas out of my head?” For others, “How do I write an introduction?” For others still, it means choosing a topic or finding a thesis. But for every writer, there are times when the scariest thing in the world is the blank page.

Each of the questions above is worth considering separately, and may well get its own blog post at some point in the future. Today, though, I’d like to talk about some approaches that can help writers in all of those situations figure out how to get started. For me, the hardest part of getting started is figuring out what I want to say. So the best way to start writing, then, is to figure out what you want to say before you start your essay. It sounds funny, but here are a few tools you can use to make it happen.

Focused Freewriting and Invisible Writing

One of the most useful tools I know for getting started is focused freewriting. Focused freewriting is a really simple technique that can make writing a lot easier. Basically: ask yourself a question, and write about it. The question should be related to your assignment, and a good place to start is something like “What do I think about this topic?” For some people, this technique will work more easily by hand; for others, it’ll be easier to do this on a computer. But think about this as thinking on paper rather than writing. You’re not starting your draft, and the writing you do may not become a part of your essay; the point is just to figure out what you think. Give yourself a timeframe–five to seven minutes usually works well, I find–and try to keep your pen moving the whole time. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or even making sense, because you won’t be turning this in. Just try to figure out what you think about the question.

If focused freewriting is difficult for you, try its cousin, invisible writing. Some people find it difficult to ignore spelling and grammar errors, and get caught up in writing “perfect” sentences rather than just letting their mind work. Invisible writing is an easy way to short-circuit that kind of thinking. It works like this: open a new document in Word (or your writing software of choice), and turn off your computer monitor. Then, type for five to seven minutes. If you can’t see what you’re typing, then you can’t fixate on your language, and you can’t worry about being perfect. You can’t even keep yourself on one train of thought very well. Invisible writing will capture all of your digressions, your mind’s wanderings, and will help you get to new thoughts and perspectives on the question you’re exploring. If you’re not a good typist, you can also do this with a simple notebook–just close the notebook over your writing hand, so you can’t see what you’re writing.

These techniques allow you to get ideas out of your head, and to figure out what you want to say about your topic, without having to worry about writing an essay. You don’t have to think about spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, whether your ideas make sense, whether you’re on topic, or what your teacher will think, because the point is just to think on paper. When the time comes to write your first draft, you’ll come back to your freewriting and look over it, deciding which ideas will work for your paper and which won’t.

Looping

Another technique to get you started is called looping. It expands on focused freewriting or invisible writing by pushing you to think further about what you want to say. It works like this: read through your focused freewrite or invisible writing, and underline or highlight an important, interesting, or unexpected idea. Then, take another five to seven minutes and freewrite about that idea. Then, if you like, find another interesting idea in what you’ve just written, and freewrite about that. You can keep doing this until you’ve pushed the idea as far as you can take it, or you can go back to your original writing and find something else interesting to explore.

Outlining

Once you have an idea of what you want to say, you can put together an outline. This can be done with varying degrees of fanciness. There are lots of formats for outlines , the most common of which is the Harvard (or Alphanumeric) outline, but you don’t necessarily need to follow a format if the outline is just for you. What matters in terms of getting started is that you put together some sort of list of things you want to talk about, in the order you want to talk about them. This will help you figure out how to move through your paper, and will limit how much you have to worry about what to do next.

Write the body first

The last piece of advice I can give about getting started has to do with when you actually sit down to write your draft. Most writers feel like they have to write the first sentence first, and that especially can be hard when you’re not certain what you want to say. A lot of the advice people give–things like “start with a hook,” or “start general”–aren’t much help, either, when you’re not sure where you’re going. And, for writers who feel like they need to have a thesis sentence in their introduction, it’s almost impossible. How can I write my thesis if I don’t know what my paper’s about yet? The best solution I know to this problem is to write the body of your paper before you write your introduction and conclusion. For me, getting a draft of my essay written before I try to write an introduction makes the process a lot less stressful, and usually means that I end up with a much better and more appropriate introduction.

In fact, when I write, I usually jump all over the place. I’ll often start one paragraph, get halfway through, get struck by something, and start another paragraph on another idea. If I feel stuck, I’ll go back to an earlier idea and flesh it out a little more, and come back later to look at the problem fresh. This way of writing certainly isn’t for everybody, but I think it’s worth mentioning. If you don’t know what comes first, start with what comes second–or fourth, or ninth, or last.

Hopefully, these simple strategies will make it easier for you to get started with your papers. Have your own ideas for starting out on a new paper? Share them in the comments!

Last Updated: 2/17/2015 2:12 PM