How to Get Started When You Don’t Know What to Write

The hardest part of writing is getting started.  In fact, the blank computer screen might be one of the most intimidating things a college student has to face.  Here’s two ways that I begin academic assignments without ever becoming overwhelmed by that blank screen.

First, I break up the process. When I have “write a draft by next week” in my agenda, it never gets done because it’s too big an assignment.  But when I have “find two sources by Wednesday” written down, I’m more likely to do it.  The key for me is creating as many steps as possible.  Even if I am later able to accomplish multiple steps in one sitting, I am much more likely to start earlier if each step seems very small and manageable than if I think of the process as a couple of major, overwhelming steps.

Here’s an example of what I might write down:
-Find two sources
-Summarize what each source is saying

-Write down possible arguments for the paper, based on the prompt
-Craft a thesis statement
-Write down quotes from each source that relate to the thesis statement
-Outline paper
-Write draft
-Edit carefully

By the time I get to “outline paper,” I already have enough done that outlining and writing are no longer so scary or difficult.  I try to write down the steps right after I receive the assignment.  Even if it takes me a while to get started on step 1, writing about the paper gets me thinking about the paper, so that when I actually start working, the process is much easier.

Second, I discuss my ideas with someone before writing anything. Even when I feel “stuck,” and am not sure what to write about, I find that a casual conversation with my housemate or a friend in the class often makes me realize that I know more than I think I do, and that I have good ideas for what to write—those ideas are just a little buried.  Writing tutors are also a great resource.  As a tutor, I’ve found that students often wait until they have a draft before meeting with a tutor, even if that means meeting just hours before a paper is due.  More relaxed meetings that focus on brainstorming, even if they occur before students begin writing, are often more productive and useful than the ones that try to salvage a disorganized draft.

-By Lauren Kuhlik ’11

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