Above all other steps in the writing process, like research and revision, getting started on a project has always been the hardest part for me. I never know what to say or what I’m trying to accomplish. And I know I’m not alone. Unsurprisingly, most of my clients and students also feel an intense amount of anxiety when facing that ominous blank screen, or deathly-white sheet of paper. Writing those first words is tough. We feel like that initial sentence sets the tone for the rest of the project, effectively sealing our fate. Unable to start, we prime the pump and spend hours, days sometimes, mulling over phrases as we fall asleep, wash our hair, or do the dishes. I used to think of this period of internal thinking as unproductive procrastination until I realized how much of the writing process occurs off-paper.
Talking about a project before actually writing is critical. Chatting helps you understand not only the prompt and what is expected of you, but also where to begin. By talking with classmates, or one of our consultants, you discover what you already know and what you need to research. Having another human being to respond to you, rather than a silent piece of paper, also allows you to consider other points of view at the earliest stages of writing, rather than waiting until you have a rough draft. Rather than get hung up on outlining, thesis statements, or topic sentences, talk with someone who can help you get on paper what you have in your head. Tossing around ideas with someone capable of questioning and interpreting them will lead you to what you want to say in a given writing situation. Your partner can doubt, support, or clarify your ideas, which you then commit to paper as part of your individual writing process.
Aside from talk as a useful tool in the writing process, exercising, creating art, cooking, and spending time with friends and loved ones can also help you when you feel like you can’t start. Personally, it’s often while on a bike ride or vacuuming my apartment that those “eureka” moments strike and I suddenly know just the right bit of evidence to use, what my overall thesis is, or how I should organize my paper. Forcing yourself to write when your brain and body want to do anything else only results in frustration and bad work, so taking a few hours off can give your subconscious the time and space to work out what you are trying to say. Repetitive tasks in particular are well-suited for keeping your body moving while your mind gets a chance to think.
If you still can’t find a starting point after talking and doing some other activity for a while, then try stream-of-consciousness writing. Simply write down everything that pops into your head for a set period of time, not worrying about grammar or whether anything will relate to your paper. This can clear the pipes, so to speak, and make it easier for the words to flow out.
Above all, the most important thing to remember about the writing process is that there is no single correct way to go about it. Also, no writing situation is the same, or every writer, so what worked for you for the last paper may not work for the next one. Always be willing to experiment, and don’t dwell on something if it isn’t working—move on.