by Dr. Joanna Bartell
My office mate, a first year M.A. student, turned in her desk chair to look at me, “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
“Go for it,” I said as I turned to face her, happy to look away from my grading.
“How do you start writing? I mean, how do you start something new?” She looked back at her computer as she continued, “Maybe it’s a dumb question, but I have such a hard time getting past the blank screen and the blinking cursor. I write a sentence, and then delete it because I don’t like it, and then write another sentence, and delete it again, over and over.”
I smiled. “It’s definitely not a dumb question. Starting something new can be difficult, and the blank screen is intimidating,” I assured her.
So we talked about it for a little while. I brought up some of the most common methods I’ve heard that are effective for many people, and then we talked about some methods that are less conventional. These are mix and match methods, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not suddenly a brilliant novelist after trying just one method:
- Focused Free Writing: Sit down with a blank page and a timer, think about the paper you need to write, set your timer for 5-10 minutes, start writing, and don’t stop. You should start with something related to your paper/topic, but the trick with free writing is to keep writing, even if what you’re writing seems only tangentially related to your topic. Follow your thoughts. Let it all out, although try to remain focused on your general topic. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or coherency; just get your ideas out, and whatever you do, don’t stop writing until your timer goes off. This exercise is helpful in many ways, including helping you get into “the writing zone,” and allowing you make connections that you may not have previously seen.
- Mind Mapping: Mind mapping and free writing share some similarities, and mind mapping after free writing is an excellent way to progress. There are different ways to mind map. For the more creatively inclined, hand drawing mind maps can be a lot of fun and offer some creative reprieve. For those who like straight lines and a typed look, there are some great mind mapping apps available, for a cost, and some for free that might not be as fancy or user friendly, but will get the job done. Take a look at Wikipedia for some more info and general mind mapping guidelines.
- Outlining x 6: I had a hell of a time starting the first chapter of my dissertation, even with an outline. My project was big, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it as a whole; the weight of it felt crushing, and every time I tried to start, I would get stuck and end up frustrated. A friend who had recently completed his dissertation told me that he’d read a book on dissertation writing, and that one of the things the book suggested was outlining each chapter, or chapter section, 6 times. Now, like I said, I had written up an outline and was trying to work from that, but I only had one version. After my friend suggested Outlining x 6, though, I went home, and I did it, and it was amazing. Here’s what worked for me:
- Get 2 pieces of blank printer paper.
- In “landscape” orientation, draw two lines on the paper so that you end up with 3 equal sections on each piece of paper, for a total of 6 sections on both pieces (for your 6 outlines).
- I wrote my first draft in pencil. When I was done, I looked at it to see how it could be revised. I used different colored pens to note changes I wanted to make (including additions, re-organization, etc.).
- In my second draft, I included the changes I notated in my first draft. As I was writing the second draft, I started including more detailed information under each major heading. I then made notations like I did in the first draft.
- I repeated the steps in the second draft in drafts 3, 4, and 5.
- When I was ready to start on the final draft, I realized that the little section I had left was not going to be big enough to fit the full outline I wanted to write, so I turned the paper over and used the back. My 6th draft was a thoughtful, clear, well organized, and detailed outline that gave me a clear picture of what I wanted to write and, importantly, made the task at hand seem less daunting and more manageable.
- Write a Sh*tty First Draft: Writing consultant Lorraine offers some suggestions for this helpful method here. Used, individually, these methods can help you get past writer’s block and moving forward. Used together, these methods can offer a writer’s-block-resistant path to a well organized, thoughtful, and engaging piece of writing. These methods have a high success rate, and are therefore some of the most popular, but there are other, less conventional methods, too. For information on some less conventional methods, keep an eye out for part 2 of this blog.