When you sit down to write, do you immediately think of 23 other things you’d rather be doing? Does your hand itch to grab your phone and start texting, or does Facebook suddenly seem more alluring than ever? Does your mind just seem filled with clouds instead of thoughts and words you can use?
If these things happen to you, you’re not alone. Writing assignments are difficult even for professional writers (that is, people who make a living by writing). Most good writing, whether it’s a stellar research paper for English class, a brilliant engineering design proposal or a bestselling novel, begins with solitary struggle. But there are plenty of ways to deal with this early stage of the writing process, to make it productive and even enjoyable.
Some writing classes give you the assignment but not much help developing your topic or the ways you’ll address it. The teacher might give you a textbook formula:
- State your thesis.
- Write an outline.
- Write the first draft.
- Revise and polish.
But this boring, bare-bones directive probably won’t help you come up with ideas to get words out on the page.
So check out these more helpful approaches:
Write a Shitty First Draft
Here are two encouraging things to keep in mind when you sit down to write your first draft:
- No one has to see this except you.
- You’ll always be able to shape it up later.
A National Book Award winner named Flannery O’Connor said that when she began writing a story, she never knew how the events of the story would play out. She had to discover the details of plot and character as she went along. Her first drafts were often messy, but they were a pivotal part of her process. She told a friend, “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” It’s like this with most kinds of writing.
Anne Lamott, who has written many successful novels and nonfiction books, says that the only way she can get anything written at all is “to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
So in the beginning, turn off your inner editor. Banish the perfectionism that trips you up. Give yourself permission to write a really shitty first draft. People from farm counties know that certain kinds of dookie are useful—they get used to the stench of the cowshit that fertilizes the crops. Likewise, that steaming pile of manure in your first draft can fertilize the bounty of clear, organized writing that will emerge through the rest of the process. So go ahead and bust a grumpy.
Set Aside a Specific Block of Time to Write Your First Draft
Because this earliest stage of a writing project can be intimidating, some writers find it useful to limit the time they give themselves for writing this draft. You could give yourself, say, an hour or 90 minutes to just get down all your thoughts about the paper. Do it when your mind is fresh, and consider giving yourself a small reward afterwards—a trail run, a bike ride, a video game, a coffee break with a friend. The ideas you got down in that limited time will percolate in your mind even when you’re not consciously trying the develop them.
Determine the Purpose of the Assignment
So what do you write in that block of time you’ve scheduled? First, think about the goals of the assignment you’ve been given. If your teacher has provided a prompt, read it carefully and analyze it. Then think about how you can use the assignment for your purposes.
Maybe you’ve been directed to write on something connected to a very general topic like the meaning of life, or a somewhat more specific topic like the latest trends in veterinary medicine. Within the broad range that subjects like these encompass, you’ll want to find something that interests you. Begin there—with what you’re most interested in under the umbrella of topics suggested by the assignment. You can always do a better job when you’re attracted to the subject you’re writing about.
Let’s say you have to write a research paper that’s connected to happiness and purpose in human life. You’d want to avoid mere abstract discussion of these ideas, because most likely the paper would be a string of boring, clichéd statements—who wants to read that? So think about what makes you happy or gives you a sense of purpose—specific activities, relationships, etc. Maybe you’re a musician, maybe you’re into biology, maybe you like caring for the sick. Start with your affinities.
Okay, so then what? The topics are still broad, and it’s hard to know how to begin. There are few things more intimidating than a blank screen. If it’s easier for you, begin by just writing down a list of ideas that have some relevance to your task—even ones that might seem silly or outrageous.
If you’re a musician, for example, you could narrow your focus to the ways that music can bring happiness and purpose to life. You might begin with specific examples of this topic from your own experience—write these down in your first draft. You can go on to explore other facets of the topic through research—there’s a wealth of material on such a topic, from biographies of musicians to scholarly articles on the psychological benefits of listening to music or creating it. You can often find relevant articles with a few minutes of searching in Google Scholar or your school’s library database.
Think about How You’ll Achieve Your Purposes
Once you’ve written down a list of ideas on your general topic, think about ways to put real sparks into them. One big long-term goal should be to make the paper interesting to your audience. So consider your list of ideas from different perspectives. Think of someone who has ideas or a worldview very different from yours—it might be a friend or relative with whom you get into a lot of arguments, for instance. What would that person think your topic and your opinions on it? If she’d disagree with you, consider how you’d respond to her points—arguing against someone will often get your creative juices flowing and lead to a strong, persuasive use of counterargument in a later draft.
Another version of this option is to think about something going on in the world that you oppose, and that has some connection to your topic. Maybe you’re read about schools cutting funding for music programs, and you think that’s a terrible policy. How will you argue against it? Jot down some of your main thoughts, and follow up with the research later. Even if you’ve written only one or two pages, you have what you didn’t have earlier in the day—valuable raw material to work with.
Of course your rough draft will need to be edited. But if you let the good stuff be fertilized by the crap (mixing metaphors here), and have a “bomb proof shit detector,” as Ernest Hemingway claimed was important for any writer, you’ll wind up with a far richer (!) piece than if you sat down 3 hours before the deadline to hand in essentially a first draft. Then you’d be handing in the shit, rather than using it to fertilize your brilliance.