3 Tips on How to Start Writing

Maybe you’ve got an idea but don’t yet have it fully fleshed out. Or perhaps you want to write but have no idea about what.

“How do I start writing?” is a daunting question I’ve both asked myself as a writer, and been asked as a writing instructor. In either case, the answer is the same: to start writing, you need to write. Obvious, right?

But for those of us who are paralyzed by the page (or diverted by all those lovely distractions on our devices), it’s not so straightforward. You’re in good company, however. Tony Kushner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has written, “The lesson I learn over and over again – and then forget over and over again – is that writing won’t be so bad once you get into it.”

And so, below are three simple ways to help you get started. I’ve used these in my own writing and taught them to my students. If you’re looking for ways to help get your ideas down and/or stimulate new ones, try these out.

  1. Keep a writer’s notebook

    While writing anywhere is a good start, I find it helpful to keep all my notes in one place: that way I can easily refer to them later. Your notebook can be paper or digital. You know yourself best and what will work for you. In any case, your writing notebook should be something that you bring with you almost anywhere you go. Pay attention to the world around you. Record your observations, ideas, overheard conversations, and imagery, like the way the leaves smell in fall. “Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud,” writes Alexander Smith. So make sure you record it. Don’t be too concerned about how it sounds at this point. “Begin by writing whatever comes to you . . . ” Janet Burroway suggests in Imaginative Writing. “Then figure out what you want to make of it, what its purpose is, and what it means.” The important thing is to get ideas down. Not only will having a dedicated writer’s notebook give you a space to write these ideas, doing so will also cue your brain to pay attention as you get into the habit of writing your thoughts down often.

  2. Create “freewrites”

    Freewrites are written quickly, often with a basic prompt. They are also known as “rush writes,” but I prefer to emphasize their quality of free association. The first freewrite I did was in a writer’s craft class with the prompt “I remember . . .” My teacher explained that we had to begin by writing this and anything it made us think of, then continue without stopping for 10 minutes. We were not to pause, go back to read what we wrote, correct any mistakes, or let our pencil stop moving. This allowed our minds to wander without censure. If we got stuck, we were to write “I remember, I remember” over and over again until we thought of something else. I was surprised at how effective this exercise was in bringing out new ideas, as well as uncovering old ones I’d never thought to write down before. I continue to use and adapt it by plugging in other prompts and doing it for longer amounts of time. One prompt I created for my students which I found particularly fun and fruitful was a freewrite “On play.”

  3. Respond to prompts

    Prompts can be a wonderful resource to get your creative juices flowing. They are usually more detailed than one you’d use for a freewrite. You can find prompts in creative writing manuals, such as Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing, and online. Or, you can create your own. I’ve found that some of the most effective prompts are paired with a piece of creative writing. For example, one which I created for my students required them to each write a “Contributor’s Note” about themselves (like the kind you’d find in an anthology or literary journal), after they had read several fictional ones by Michael Martone. They were to select one aspect about themselves to emphasize and run with it (for example, Martone wrote an entire Contributor’s Note about his name), adding any details they would like along the way, fictionalizing it if they want. The point was for these Contributor’s Notes to read more like memoir than a typical Note. The results were both creative and humorous. Responding to prompts allows you to both focus your thoughts and expand them.

As you get into the habit of frequent writing and writing within constraints, you’ll find ideas opening up as you explore these different ways of writing. And so, in short, if you want to write, it’s no more complicated than to just start writing!

Question: What methods do you use to start writing?


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