Writing Tips: Getting Started
March 4, 2013
A Cursor Always Blinks
By: Meg McSwain, with Consultant Contributions
Blink. Blink. Blink. The cursor taunts you. Tick. Tick. Tick. The clock mimics the rhythm of the blinking cursor. An unmarked, white screen—only interrupted by that reliable, flashing, black line—is demanding your attention. While the feeling of striking the last key to end a piece of writing is nearly incomparable satisfaction, the (at times) overwhelming anxiety and frustration of starting a text can be paralyzing. Forget writing the first paragraph. At times, just writing the first sentence, heck, even the first word, can incite a war between the forward-moving string of words and the destructive backspace key of opposition.
Let’s be honest: Getting a piece of writing started is tough work. Unless you happen to be smiled upon by the writing gods, blessed with the divine inspiration of a must-write-now awakening, then getting the first few words onto a blank page can be a challenge. The good news is that you aren’t alone in this battle of blankness. Many, if not most, writers have a hard time getting started. We, University Writing Center consultants, started thinking about the how we start our own writing adventures. Below, you will find some of our brightest ideas, techniques, and suggestions for lighting your way through the darkness of new writing projects.
Through all my struggles of getting started, I have developed my own go-to technique when stuck on the first sentence. Who am I kidding? I mean when I am stuck on the first word. First, I make an outline. I start with my “working thesis” at the top of the page, and then I add ideas and arrows and quotes and doodles until I can better see, both intellectually and physically, the piece that I want to write. This outline may not look like much with the scribbles for handwriting and the truncated quotes, but for me, seeing the path of my story or argument normally gets me excited about what I am about to create on the blank page. This excitement helps me overcome the first-word challenge. I also hang on to this outline and continue to revise it as I work through the actual writing of the text. Many of my best and proudest writing projects have come to form on these scribble- and arrow-filled pieces of loose leaf. I also recommend having some sticky notes nearby, because they will not only add color to your outline but also allow you to revise and expand upon the thoughts on this rough writing projection.
I then use one of my “start” words. By “start” words, I mean words that I use to get me out of a writing bind. My list includes “although,” “while,” “throughout,” and “despite.” While my list of “start” words is rather predictable, it is a word that begins a complete sentence, and sometimes that’s all I need or want. I typically revise these words out later in my writing process, but when I am staring at a blank page, they are great for getting me writing.
Advice from University Writing Center Consultants
Dennis: If it’s a play, an idea emerges out of the ether, grabs me, and says, “Hey, pay attention to this!” I think about it for a while (maybe a long while) before brainstorming notes about characters, plot ideas, scenes, themes, etc. Sometime after that, I bleed black and blue onto a page (I free write) to see what I have to say.
Marcy: If I’m writing something that is source-based, I open a different Word file for each article or book and simply type in direct quotes that intrigue me. After I’ve read and taken notes on what feels like enough to write about SOMETHING, I print out the documents and start searching and highlighting themes, contradictions, etc. From these highlighted quotes, I start to formulate my thesis…Or if all else fails, I just sit in a coffee shop and write on the back of an envelope.