I have a friend working in journalism who keeps a Post-it stuck to his laptop that says: “START ANYWHERE.” For him, and for a lot of us who write, the scariest part of writing is staring down the blank page and blinking cursor, wondering how exactly you’re going to get to a finished product. If you’re like me, this is where you slip into procrastination: suddenly I want to do the dishes stacked in the sink, or organize all the sheafs of mail coupons gathering on my coffee table—anything to defer the moment when I have to actually put words on the page. This fear often stems from a flawed idea of what writing should feel like: a glorious and triumphant frenzy of typing, at the end of which you print out your pages, staple them together, and move on, aglow in a sense of accomplishment. If this is how writing goes for you, you have my deepest respect and envy! But for me, writing with this kind of automatic ease and fluidity is more a myth than a reality. Here are three easy tricks to break out of those fearsome shackles and start writing:
1. Fragments are okay!
I’m a big believer in the idea that writing is thinking, and thought rarely occurs in complete, elegant sentences. We think in fragments, phrases, images, half-baked reflections, and stray associations—and it’s okay for early-stage writing to reflect that. No need to labor over extended, coherent paragraphs, or fashion winding multi-clause sentences right away—there’s plenty of time to patch things together later. The important thing when starting out is giving yourself the time and mental bandwidth to think on the page, see what you have to say, and then go from there.
2. Forget intros, write them last.
Basic intuition tells us that in starting a piece of writing we should start at the beginning, with that pesky introductory paragraph that has haunted us since high school. I would argue that the introduction should be one of the last things you write in your composing process. Why? I’ve seen countless student essays where the bulk of the writing doesn’t actually correspond to the introductory paragraph. This happens because the act of writing reveals new associations and insights while you work. Often, it takes producing a page or two of sentences before you really discover the core subject matter you want to focus on in the essay. Let your introduction mold to the rest of the essay, instead of the other way around.
3. Follow each sentence to the next.
Here’s an analogy: writing an essay is like running a relay—each sentence passes the baton to the next, and your writing keeps sprinting even while certain ideas fall away or run out of steam. Follow the associations on the page. Let this sentence-to-sentence hand-off guide you, and don’t worry if it takes you into unforeseen territory—that’s a good sign, actually. Insight occurs in mental spaces that we can’t plan for or outline in advance. The job of the writer, especially on a first draft, is to withstand that yearning for organization and give yourself permission to be messy.
The hardest part of writing is not cleaning up a messy draft. It’s having started at all. Follow “The Three F’s,” and you’ll be well on your way!
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.
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