Finding that elusive starting point

by Abby Ponder  

You sit down with your pen and pencil (or with your fingers hovering over their respective keys on your keyboard), and you brace yourself: it’s time to write. Whether you’ve waited until the last minute and are working against a clock, or are starting a month in advance, there’s no easy place to start. The words don’t always flow automatically and sometimes you’re just stuck.

First, take a deep breath.

It can be overwhelming when you’re staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking ominously at you. You feel like you have to put something on the page, and the longer that screen stays blank, the worse you begin to feel.

Sometimes writing a paper is the easiest thing in the world to do. The words are coming, the ideas are flowing, and just like that you’re finished and awaiting your well-deserved A. When it works out like that? It’s great! But it doesn’t always. So what do you do when you don’t know where to start and you’ve already wasted enough time on Facebook or Netflix, procrastinating the inevitable?

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve found that outlining is my actual best friend. Yeah, I know, all your professors tell you to make an outline. You’ll sigh, sometimes, because who really wants to take the time to write something that won’t even become the final product? I understand your way of thinking, my friend–I do. But try it.

To start your outline, read your assignment carefully and make sure you fully understand the question. I know that I’m prone to skimming things, especially when I’m in a hurry, but experience has taught me that it’s a surefire way to miss something important. Sometimes it helps to make a list of the tasks the professor is looking for in the assignment: Write them down in a nice bulleted list, and then take notes on those objectives. The professor wants you to talk about the differences between Nathaniel Hawthorne’sYoung Goodman Brown” and “The Celestial Railroad?” You can do that. It doesn’t have to look perfect at this stage; you’re just putting ideas on paper.

If your assignment requires outside sources, once you finish your list start looking for those resources. Pull out the information you think will be valuable, and begin placing the quotes in the areas you think they will be most applicable.

When you feel like you have a clear direction, then get started! Remember, your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect–that’s why it’s called a first draft. And don’t forget to pay us a visit in the Writing Center! We’re here to help talk you through your outline or answer any questions you may have along the way.

Happy Writing!

This post was originally published on September 22, 2014.

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