Getting Stuck at the Start

Getting started with a new writing project can be hard…

In reality, it might not be as funny as Snoopy’s situation.

As the minutes tick by, you might start to worry: If I can’t even write the introduction, is this entire project going to fail? Never a great moment (but one I’ve experienced myself on far too many occasions).

Take a Breather

One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t help to keep spinning your wheels. Step away from your writing for five minutes. Stretch, get a glass of water. Take a deep breath. Then calmly take another look. Try to get a broader perspective, as if you’re helping a friend.

Consider Which Scenario Fits You

Now that you’ve chilled out a little, take a moment to consider which of these scenarios might apply to your situation:


The Pre-Writing Process Didn’t Work

When preparing for a writing project, one size does not fit all. Take a moment to think about your natural style and impulses. Review the preparation you’ve completed so far. Then adjust to fit your strengths and weaknesses.

For example:

  • Detail-Oriented Writers: If you researched tons of background information, you might need to put that aside momentarily to focus on the big picture. Create a top-level diagram of ideas. Then try again, focusing on the overall structure and flow. Do not check details until you’ve finished a rough draft!
  • Big Picture Types: On the other hand, maybe you like to focus on the overall themes, so you went a little light on the preparation. (Okay, let’s be honest, you skipped the research phase entirely.) This might be why you’re struggling to create content. Don’t try to fake the intro! Go back to prep mode–even 20 minutes of additional research and analysis could help. Add details to your top-level outline, then start again.


You’re Revising Over and Over, in an Endless Loop

Have you rewritten the first sentences about 50 times, and still feel dissatisfied? I sympathize, but it could be that you need to get a little tougher with yourself–in a different way.

Try setting a timer for 20 minutes. Give the opening your best shot, then move on as soon as the timer rings. Turn your focus to the body of the piece. If you think of another correction, do not revise the introduction! Instead, jot a note about the new idea.

Keep writing the body of the document until you reach a reasonable goal (for example, finishing four body paragraphs, or two chapters). If possible, wait a day before looking at the introduction again.

Save your work as Draft 1. Make a copy called Draft 2. Then (and only then) revise the introduction. You may need to repeat the cycle a time or two. Spacing out work sessions might help you keep from bogging down.

The Words Don’t Match What You Want to Say

If you feel like the introduction is turning out all wrong, try giving up on it for a moment. Instead, write what you’d like the opening to say. For example, “I want the first paragraph to create the scene, which is dark and stormy. I want the reader to be introduced to my protagonist, who is a great big dog…” and so on.

This takes the pressure off. Instead of being a master writer, you can be a master planner. After writing the plan, move on to the body of the work.

Go back to the opening when you feel more confident and ready to take it on, using your plan of action.

Verbal Storytellers: If you’re better at telling stories at a party than typing at your computer, try telling a family member, fellow student, or friend about what you want to write. For example: “What I really want to say is there’s a crazy storm going on…” Listen to yourself, make some notes, get some reactions, then try again.

Rambler’s Gotta Ramble

Some writers naturally ramble a bit when they start a new project. Who’s to judge? If that’s your style, then maybe you just need to be patient with yourself. Start writing. If you feel like you need to develop the story another way, go for it, but don’t delete anything, just keep writing until you feel you’ve got it covered.

Later, after you’ve gotten the body of the writing complete, go back to the introduction. Figure out where the good stuff started. You might end up deleting the first five sentences, keeping a fantastic first line, deleting a couple of repetitive phrases, then jumping into a terrific final sentence… After the pruning, the connections might need a little tweaking to make it all flow together, but otherwise, voila!

Fear & Loathing of Formulas

Few of us write only for Art, with each piece of writing an opportunity to discover truth and beauty and an entirely new way of communicating.

So maybe Art is your goal, but in real life, you have to crank out an assignment for English. It might not hurt to simply follow the required formula to get the thing going. If you weren’t given a formula, but you’re stuck, you can try searching for ideas online (but look for advice on structure–never copy other writers’ material).

For example, if you’ve been assigned a five-paragraph essay, write that first paragraph to introduce your main idea and three supporting facts, and so on from there…

If you really need to add a signature touch, go ahead and throw in a joke, or fun fact, or crazy plot twist. But if the instructor (or intended audience) is guaranteed not to enjoy your flight of creativity, save a copy as Draft 2, and delete the non-conforming material. It’s not worth losing too much sleep over.

Mismatched Energy Level

Launching a project requires extra energy and creativity. Consider the time of day when you tried to kick off your project, and analyze how that fits with your natural energy levels.

If possible, try to kick off the project when you have the maximum energy for the initial attack. You may need to experiment, over the course of several projects, to figure out when that is. For some of us, it’s best to start something new first thing in the morning, before class. For night owls, after dinner might be best.

On the other hand, if you tend to have a lot of energy and are super athletic, you might need to work out before you start writing, so you’re able to sit long enough to make some progress with the writing.

Too Much (Or Too Little) Deadline Pressure

This might be a little trickier to control for your current project, but consider how you react to deadline pressure.

Some of us do best if we’re literally minutes from a deadline. Others like to see the project timeline drifting off into the distance. Most of us, however, do best with some sort of deadline.

While you might not have much control over the deadline, you can try to adjust the deadline pressure. For example, if it’s a long project, and you don’t do well with last-minute stress, set intermediate milestones to make slow consistent progress.

On the other hand, if you thrive on tight deadlines, try to pick classes or projects that are brief and deadline driven. If you have to complete a long project, plan a chunk of work and try to finish it in record time before giving yourself a reward.

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