Let’s start with the assumption that writing doesn’t begin when you put pen to paper (or fingers on a keyboard). Rather, it starts when you think about what you want to write. Time you spend thinking about a possible essay topic while you are in the shower counts as part of your writing process. So does a moment of pondering while looking out the bus window on your morning commute. And so does reading a blog post or listening to a podcast episode that sparks a new idea. Thinking about writing is writing, and this section offers some suggestions for how you can spark some good thinking.
The Writing Centre at the University of North Carolina has a method for getting the writing process started, which you can use when you feel like you just can’t think of anything to write:
When you’ve got nothing: You might need a storm to approach when you feel “blank” about the topic, devoid of inspiration, full of anxiety about the topic, or just too tired to craft an orderly outline. In this case, brainstorming stirs up the dust, whips some air into our stilled pools of thought, and gets the breeze of inspiration moving again.
When you’ve got too much: There are times when you have too much chaos in your brain and need to bring in some conscious order. In this case, brainstorming forces the mental chaos and random thoughts to rain out onto the page, giving you some concrete words or schemas that you can then arrange according to their logical relations.
That being said, ideas have a way of disappearing if we don’t make a record of them. For that reason, most descriptions of a writing process start by encouraging you to get something down on paper. This section suggests a number of ways you can keep track of your thinking and make it possible to archive your ideas. Remember, these are only suggestions and not a prescription for “good” writing.
Here are a couple ways you can begin the process of getting your ideas down:
When you freewrite, you let your thoughts flow as they will, putting pen to paper and writing down whatever comes into your mind. You don’t judge the quality of what you write and you don’t worry about style or any surface-level issues, like spelling, grammar, or punctuation. If you can’t think of what to say, you write that down—really. The advantage of this technique is that you free up your internal critic and allow yourself to write things you might not write if you were being too self-conscious.
When you freewrite you can set a time limit (“I’ll write for 15 minutes!”) and even use a kitchen timer or alarm clock or you can set a space limit (“I’ll write until I fill four full notebook pages, no matter what tries to interrupt me!”) and just write until you reach that goal. You might do this on the computer or on paper, and you can even try it with your eyes shut or the monitor off, which encourages speed and freedom of thought.
The crucial point is that you keep on writing even if you believe you are saying nothing. Word must follow word, no matter the relevance. Your freewriting might even look like this:
“This paper is supposed to be on the politics of tobacco production but even though I went to all the lectures and read the book I can’t think of what to say and I’ve felt this way for four minutes now and I have 11 minutes left and I wonder if I’ll keep thinking nothing during every minute but I’m not sure if it matters that I am babbling and I don’t know what else to say about this topic and it is rainy today and I never noticed the number of cracks in that wall before and those cracks remind me of the walls in my grandfather’s study and he smoked and he farmed and I wonder why he didn’t farm tobacco…”
When you’re done with your set number of minutes or have reached your page goal, read back over the text. Yes, there will be a lot of filler and unusable thoughts but there also will be little gems, discoveries, and insights. When you find these gems, highlight them or cut and paste them into your draft or onto an “ideas” sheet so you can use them in your paper. Even if you don’t find any diamonds in there, you will have either quieted some of the noisy chaos or greased the writing gears so that you can now face the assigned paper topic.
Consider purpose and audience
Think about the parts of communication involved in any writing or speaking act: purpose and audience.
What is your purpose?
What are you trying to do? What verb captures your intent? Are you trying to inform? Convince? Describe? Each purpose will lead you to a different set of information and help you shape material to include and exclude in a draft. Write about why you are writing this draft in this form.
Who is your audience?
Who are you communicating with (beyond the person who’s going to put a grade on this assignment)? What does that audience need to know? What do they already know? What information does that audience need first, second, third? Write about who you are writing to and what they need. For more on audience, see our handout on audience.
Some folks are reluctant to devote time to this pre-writing work, and it is possible to create an effective piece of writing just by leaping in (especially if you allow time for rewriting, revision, and reworking your text). But if you have a big project to tackle, deliberate thinking offers a low-pressure way to get started and will likely save you time in the long run.
- “Brainstorming,” Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accessed May 25, 2020, https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/brainstorming/. ↵
- Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Brainstorming.” ↵