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Writing Tips: Getting Started

March 4, 2013

A Cursor Always Blinks

By: Meg McSwain, with Consultant Contributions

vJ8PvLf6YWr7oRQ7vrs9iy48pe2VqVvmk6jcX1E5irYBlink. 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.

Catherine: I create a file for the paper I call “the parking lot.” As I read and review my research, I generally have thoughts bubble up or connections start to occur to me. Sometimes they are very vague, but I write them down in the parking lot file as they come to me. That way, my ideas are safely “parked” somewhere until I need them. And, frequently, they offer the beginnings of the introduction or the body of the paper.
Allie: I’m a big believer in talking out ideas. I probably drive my roommate and friends crazy, but it really helps to figure out what lens to analyze some novel through or what to focus on. When no one’s around or everyone’s too busy, I’ve found writing in my journal really helps. There’s something about physically writing with a pencil onto paper that really makes things click for me. Usually it won’t make sense to anyone but me, but that’s not really what matters is it? It’s getting the idea down first and clarifying it later.
Emily: Getting started on papers is the most difficult part of the writing process for me. I usually determine my main point and as many supporting topics (as paragraphs) as possible. Then, I open a different Word document for each topic and just tell myself, “Okay, you just have to write a page about this. No problem!” I find that compartmentalizing lengthy (or not) papers is something a lot of students find helpful.
Aaron: I rarely start writing from the beginning. Instead, I start in the middle. Whether I’m writing research papers, personal statements or essays, I always read, research, and record ideas and connections; then, based off this preliminary work, I start writing about my research. Essentially, this is the evidence of my topic; it will support my argument. I treat almost everything I write as an argument. Even with an informative essay, I will sneak a little rhetoric in to make it more compelling. However, I do already have an argument before I start researching.

What do you think?

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