by Ronnie Morris
Published at 2022-07-06
Writing of any sort—whether it’s fiction or non-fiction—can be tough. Self-doubt can make an already difficult task even harder, and it’s easy to put too much pressure on yourself. In a previous blog entry, Lesley-Anne gave us a helpful overview of how you can get your writing underway and navigate through the process of writing a longer work by building an outline. But what if you still don’t know where to start? Below are some other ways to kickstart your creative engine and get started on that writing project.
The fact is, most written works are only constructed after a period of thorough planning: brainstorming, research, and—yes—outlining. It’s easy to discount this stage of the work, but it can be vital to lay a solid foundation: writing involves a lot more than just sitting at your desk, after all. The first step of the journey is finding what it is you want to write about. Pay attention to those little sparks of ideas and learn everything you can about a topic that calls to you. Do your research. And while you’re brainstorming and sleuthing, it might help you to understand the scope of your project if you plan it out.
Most writers fall into one of two categories: “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters create a detailed, meticulous map or blueprint of their project before they ever begin writing. They might chart out the main points of their argument—the plot movements, the character arcs—but they find some degree of some pre-writing to be indispensable in preparing themselves to dive into the writing process.
Pantsers, on the other hand, prefer to jump right into the writing portion without the restrictions of a pre-determined roadmap, flying by the seats of their pants, if you will. But even writing like this requires some basic planning: if you work this way you might first hazard a guess at the number of chapters you’re aiming for, or the approximate word count you want your finished draft to be. You might benefit from drawing up a rough table of contents, from creating a vague lists of bullet points, or even from scrawling snippets of scenes on scraps of paper.
Whichever way you choose to do it, it’s important to know who you’re doing it for. Are they casual readers or academics? Is this meant to inform them or to entertain them? Are you writing for a specific niche or for a larger, more general audience? You would be hard-pressed to find a piece of writing that appeals to every demographic, so identify your target audience and keep this group in your mind as you write. That way, you can better tailor your message, scope, and tone to them.
Some writers find it helpful to break their writing into multiple sections—even if they don’t intend to keep them that way. Each one can be tackled as a separate writing project, one chunk at a time, and this can be helpful whether the intention is to eventually construct a novel or an academic manuscript. Breaking your writing down into smaller bits can make the journey feel more manageable, and you might feel better equipped to take on your project as a whole.
That said, it might not be the best idea to start with page one of chapter one. Really, there’s nothing saying you can’t write up these chunks in whatever order you prefer. If you find yourself getting stuck on a certain section, put it aside and jump to a new section. You could write whatever you’re most excited about first and come back later, energized and motivated; this often helps to clear creative blocks, providing fresh insight into your topic and helping you refine your thesis. Many writers find they discover entirely new pathways by working ahead in this way.
Because the opening lines of any piece of writing can be so important, moreover, many write the very last line first and work backwards from there. You can choose whatever point of entry you feel is most helpful for your writing process.
“You can’t edit a blank page,” they say. And it’s true: there has to be something for you to work with or you’ll get nowhere. But no one says that what is on that page has to be perfect. Many are intimidated by the void, however, and they are so embarrassed by anything they do to try to fill it that they stop, never getting any further.
If you find yourself in this position, the secret is to just start writing. And write fast. You can easily get bogged down with the editing process early on in your writing but this can inhibit the speed of your progress. Nitpicking at sentence structure or punctuation can wait for a later draft: to start out with, keep up the pace and write down the ideas as they flow to you.
When you’re not actually writing, don’t ignore the random ideas that pop into your head. If you’re inspired, write it down. A notepad or a notes app can be a handy way to jot down anything that comes to you, and this material might turn out to be useful in an unexpected way. Even terrible ideas can inspire good ones, so whenever you have an idea—write it down.
Some writers find it helpful to write in a variety of formats at the same time. You might keep a journal or a blog to record your thoughts, whether they’re about the process of writing or about something totally unrelated. Working in another form can help you to develop your voice, making you more versatile and strengthening skills that you might usually neglect. More importantly, changing gears like this can be a great way to break out of writer’s block.
If you’re really feeling stuck, you might try some writing exercises. Some find that prewritten writing “prompts” can give them the nudge they need and get their creative juices flowing. Fiction writers can particularly benefit from “what if” questions: “What if you found you were actually a powerful wizard?” for instance, or “What if you woke up to find you had transformed into an insect?” These prompts can be a simple, quick writing exercise, but they can also be a jumping-off point for another project. On Twitter, you can find these kinds of springboards at @writingprompts.
Other writers swear by “freewriting”—a technique where you write in a stream of consciousness, without a prescribed structure, following the impulses of your own mind and writing down your thoughts without premeditation or any concern about whether or not it’s actually any good. Of course, this might ultimately yield unusable material, but it can also unleash your creativity and help you make connections between ideas you didn’t even know you had. Check out @MarianneEWest’s @FreewriteHouse for more.
Finally, you might try using the writing sprint—a nonstop writing session restricted to a limited amount of time, often between five and sixty minutes. The idea is to write as many words as you can without stopping to edit or evaluate your work, which can give you a far more actionable goal than something abstract like “write something great.” In this way, sprints can really help you if you’re struggling with procrastination or perfectionism because they don’t allow you to pause and overthink your writing. If you want some added encouragement, check out @wordsprints.
Always keep in mind: perfectionism is the enemy of a first draft. At the same time, don’t compare your work to others—as someone once said, comparison is the thief of joy. It’s normal to feel lost, especially at the beginning of a project, but perfectionism rarely leads to perfection. But it can very well stop you from even trying.
Good luck—and happy writing!
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