For a writer, sometimes getting started represents the hardest part of the writing process. Getting that first word or sentence out onto the paper or screen can feel like trying to give birth to a breach baby.
For me, it’s the lead to an article or the first paragraph or two of an essay or of a chapter that feels the most difficult. Once I’ve got that part written, the rest of the piece simply flows naturally out of that beginning. It’s as if the head of the baby has made it into the world after a long labor and much pushing, and the body follows with just a little bit more effort.
Some writers have the luxury of waiting for their words, like parents waiting for a child to reach full term and be born or for a baby that decides not to come into the world until several weeks past its due date. Others, like journalists or authors under contract, have deadlines to meet and must be sure the words are brought into the world on schedule and by their due date. They need to induce labor so their manuscripts are completed and turned in on time.
So, how does a writer start writing when they have writers block or feel stumped and stuck? Here are a few tips and exercises to help you over a rough beginning.
Try Timed Writings
This exercise provides a great jump start for your writing. It involves setting a timer for a designated writing period, say 10 or 30 minutes. When you turn the timer on, you start writing. No if, ands or buts. You just begin putting words on paper or screen even if at first they don’t make sense. Imagine this like a race. The time keeper says, “Ready, set, go,” and the gun goes off. At the same time, your fingers (or your pen) get moving.
And no editing is allowed. Leave your inner critic locked in the closet while you let your muse run wild. The idea is to write as fast as you can until the timer rings. Then you can go back and see if you produced anything worth using. If not, try the exercise again. Or maybe by that point you’ll be able to simply write the beginning to your piece without the timer.
Use a Writing Prompt
This exercise entails giving you yourself a subject about which to write or a scene to describe or an experience to recall. In other words, you use a prompt to start your writing. You can choose something totally related to the actual subject you need or want to cover in your essay, article or book chapter, or you can pick something totally unrelated just to get your creative writing juices flowing. You might make the exercise really challenging and start with an unrelated writing prompt—this often makes a writer feel less pressured—and see if after a paragraph you can gently turn your writing towards the subject about which you actually need to write.
Again, do this exercise quickly if you can. Try writing at first “off the top of your head,” without a lot of thought. You can combine using a writing prompt with a timed writing. The threat of a deadline often gets us over the hurdle of beginning to write.
Designate a Writing Time
Pick a certain period of the day that you designate as your writing time. This should have a start and an end time. This way, you know that you have only this amount of time in which to write. Or, looked at another way, you know you have all of this time to write. This is your writing time.
Again, this forces a deadline upon you. Sit down at your computer each day at your designated time and write. Write anything. But write, even if you only write, “I don’t know what to write.” Then add the next tip.
Give Yourself a Word or Page Quota
Decide upon a certain number of words or pages you want to complete each day or week. Then make sure you stick to this commitment. This means sitting at the computer until you complete your quota. No excuses. To borrow Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.” If you have only 30 minutes left on Friday in your designated time slot and you’ve spent the whole week piddling away your time “researching” your subject on the Internet rather than writing, then you better get writing fast…and extend your time. Don’t let yourself out of the chair until you have produced some writing. Be your own worst boss. Don’t let yourself go “home” until you’ve done your job. And your job is to start writing. (You will often find me at my computer writing until 1 or 2 a.m. for this reason…I’m forcing myself to do what I said I would do before I can call it a day.)
Don’t Miss the Moment When the Urge to Write Hits
When you suddenly have an idea or an urge to write, but it’s just not a convenient time to sit down and write, write anyway. Again, “just do it!” So what if you just lay down in bed, and you’re tired; if your mind is composing those first two sentences you tried for two hours this afternoon to write, get up and go write them down. I can assure you that you won’t remember them come morning. (I know this from experience.) Maybe you just sat down to dinner at your favorite restaurant with some friends when suddenly you know exactly how to start that chapter or article you couldn’t get started during your designated writing time. Don’t wait until you get home. Excuse yourself…with some napkins…and go into the bathroom and write it down. Then, as soon as you can, get to a computer and type in those words, and keep on writing.
Never let the muse go unattended. She likes to be noticed. And she never waits around until you have the time to pay attention to her. That’s why it’s good practice to have a small pad and pen or a tape recorder with you at all times so you can catch your words when they decide to make their way into the world.
I will acknowledge that sometimes our words have to gestate within us. Yet, we can’t always wait for them to be born on their own time. Sometimes they send us into labor too late. The deadline or the opportunity then is missed. Thus, we must induce them to come out, to be born onto the pages of our manuscripts, in a timely manner—or at least at will.