Getting Started

This document contains all the section on "Getting Started" as one large file. You can select smaller files or sub-sections of this document with the following hyperlinks:

  • Overcoming Writer's Block
  • Freewriting
  • Clustering
  • Outlining
  • Overcoming Writer's Block
    For many writers the worst part of the writing experience is the very beginning, when they're sitting at the kitchen table staring at a blank sheet of paper or in front of that unblinking and perfectly empty computer monitor. "I have nothing to say," is the only thing that comes to mind. "I am XX years old and I have done nothing, discovered nothing, been nothing, and there are absolutely no thoughts in my head that anyone would ever want to read about." This is the Censor in your brain, your Self-Critic, and sometimes that Censor is bigger than you are. Who knows what causes the ugly Censor to be there — a bad experience in third grade? something your mother said once during potty-training? — it doesn't matter. The Censor is there for all of us, building and rebuilding this thing called Writer's Block, one of the Censor's many self-limiting toys. It might be some comfort to know that even professional writers suffer from Writer's Block from time to time. Some of the greatest writers in literature — Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway — were tormented by momentary lapses in their ability to produce text — although you wouldn't think it possible if you've ever tried to pick up War and Peace with one hand.

    American poet William Stafford offers this advice to poets who suffer from Writer's Block: "There is no such thing as writer's block for writers whose standards are low enough." This sounds terrible at first. "What? I'm supposed to write junk? I need a good grade! I'm better than that!" No, Stafford is not encouraging writers to produce garbage. He is suggesting, however, that it's easy to take yourself too seriously, to think you're going to write a poem or an essay that is going to be the greatest poem or essay ever written, that you're going to formulate the greatest, loveliest, most intelligent statement ever made. So you sit there, thinking how unworthy you are, cursing the day you were born, wondering why you ever went to college, hating the very act of writing that has you so stymied. A writer has to let that go, forget about judgment. Go ahead and write drivel at first, as long as you write. Out of your nonsense and ramblings, however, believe that something good will come, some idea will catch fire right there on the page, there will be sparks, patterns will emerge. Be willing to throw stuff out. It's all right. Do you think Shakespeare didn't litter his kitchen floor with balled-up pieces of paper? One nice thing about the word-processor is that you're not wasting paper and trees; you're just exercising the delete key. But this is no time to worry about the environment. Fill that wastebasket with paper and trust that something will come of all this scribbling. It will.

    Carry with you a pocket-sized notebook in which you can scribble ideas for writing as they come to you. How often have you been stopped at a red-light and a great idea has come into your head? It's so wonderful that you know you'll remember it when you get home, but when you sit down at the table, pen in hand, all you remember is the fact that you had a good idea an hour ago. Part of the writing experience is learning that good ideas do not always come to us when we need them. We must learn to catch ideas as they come to us, fortuitously, even as we're about to fall asleep at night.

    People who tell you that physical exercise is important for mental activity are telling the truth. If nothing's happening on the computer screen or paper, take a walk around the block. Hit the treadmill or tennis courts or drive to the gym. But take your notebook with you. Fresh blood will be flowing through your brain and jogging might just jog something loose in your head. It happens.

    Another trick is to start in the middle of your writing project. Avoid that problem of getting started by starting on a part of the project that interests you more and then come back to the introductory matter later. This sounds a bit like starting to earn your second million dollars before you've earned your first, but it's really not a bad idea in any case, because sometimes it's easier to say where you're going after you know where you've been. After all, your readers will never know you wrote the introduction last (another joy of word-processing technology!). One final maneuver around the old Writer's Block: talk over your paper with a friend, or just blab away into a tape recorder (even better). Play the tape back and write down what you hear in clusters of ideas or freewrite about them.

    Many writing instructors use a freewriting exercise at the beginning of each class. It's a way of getting the brain in gear, and it's an exercise you can do on your own, safe to try in your own home. (We provide an interactive page for this exercise, see
    below.) Write down a topic at the top of that empty page. It can be either a one-word topic — like "Dentists," for example — or a brief statement of the topic you've chosen or been given to write about. Set the clock for five to ten minutes and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and go at it. Write as fast as you can; the faster the better. You are not allowed to stop writing! If you can't think of anything to say, write down that you can't think of anything to say, something like: "I'm stuck but I'll think of something soon." Don't stop. Don't worry about transitions or connecting the ideas or paragraphing or subject-verb agreement or even commas. And form absolutely no judgment about what you write. Your Censor is on vacation. Your writing may take you in some really weird directions, but don't stop and never think to yourself, "Oh, this is dumb!" If you get off the subject, that's all right. Your divagation may end up somewhere wonderful. Just keep writing. Do not criticize yourself and do not cut or scratch out or revise in any way. Many instructors suggest that at the end of the timed period, you should write one sentence IN ALL CAPS that takes you back to where you started — something to do with dentists.

    It's probably a good idea to read your freewriting out loud when you're done with it. Often the ear will pick up some pattern or neat idea that you hadn't noticed even as you wrote it. Read your freewriting to a friend or have your friend read it out to you. Your friend might think you're insane, but that's all right. Then it's time to spend just a couple of minutes going through the freewriting with an aim toward casual rewriting. The word-processor is a big advantage here. Delete the "I can't think of anything to say" lines and the pure nonsense. Are any ideas or patterns emerging?

    Don't give up on freewriting after one exercise. Many students think that it's boring or stupid at first and come to love it after a week or so of exercises. Freewriting is like any other kind of mental activity: you will get better at it. The first couple of times you try it, perhaps nothing will come of it. After a few efforts, though, the exercise will become liberating. Just as you would never start to play tennis or jog without stretching a bit first, you will never try to write again without doing a bit of freewriting first. Sometimes, even in the middle of an essay, when stuck for the next idea, you can do a bit of freewriting to get you going again.

    Here's a five-minute example of free-writing on the subject of dentists written by an older student, Thruston Parry, who has given us permission to use his work:

    I hate going to the dentist. I'm always afraid that they're going to hurt me, and I'm not very good at pain, at tolerating pain, I mean. I remember the first time,w hen I was a kid, going to the dentists, it seemed I never went to the dentist when I was a kid until I had a toothache, that's my parents fault, isn't it, I guess. They should have taken better care of my teeth when I was little, and then I wouldn't have so much grief now with my teeth. But back then I would go to the dentists and he would have this godawful drill that would make this awful noise and it seemed like it always hurt. I remember there was this sign in his office that said PAINLESS DENTIST, UPSTAIRS, but there was no upstairs in his building. Some joke, huh? I can't think of anything to say, and I can't think of anything more to say. Oh, I wonder how come anyone in his right might mind would ever want to become a dentist, putting his fingers into other people's mouths all day, all that spit and blood and not there's the fear of getting AIDS from your clients that they have to wear those rubber gloves and I hate the feel of those things in my mouth, too, and the sound of that thing that draws the spit out of your mouth. I wonder why my folks didn't take me to the dentist BEFORE i had trouble. Probably because when they were growing up it was bad times and they didn't have any money for things like the dentist and it was just taken for granted that you were going to get cavities and lose a lot of teeth before you were even an adult. I can't think of anything more to say. I can't think of anything more to say. all I know is that when I have kids, they're going to the dentist every six months whether they want to or not and maybe by then they'll have invented some way to absolutely prevent cavities and maybe there won't even be any dentists or if there are it'll just be to clean your teeth and make sure they're straight and pearly white and we won't worry about cavities and stuff like that that causes pain anymore. DENTISTS, MY ATTITUDE HAS CHANGED AS I GOT OLDER.

    Looking back over this paragraph, do you see any ideas that might lend themselves toward an essay on dentists or at least the beginnings of one? Why would one want to become a dentist? or some other "unpleasant" line of medical work (even worse than dentistry)? How have attitudes toward going to the dentist changed over the years? Will better toothpastes, etc. eventually make dentists obsolete? How do dentists cope with the threat of AIDS? Is it a real threat?

    Click HERE for a blank text-area, complete with automatic line-wrapping and ten-minute timer, where you can practice, online, your own freewriting. You might have to click in the upper left-hand corner of the text-area to make your typing cursor appear. When the ten-minute period expires, the page disappears, but you can get back to it by clicking on your browser's BACK button. Also, you can erase your text by clicking on the button at the bottom of the text-area. Use the following hyperlinks if you prefer an Eight-Minute Timer or a Five-Minute Timer or an Untimed Exercise.

    TEACHER'S NOTE: "Freewriting: A Means of Teaching Critical Thinking to College Freshmen," an excellent paper on the uses of freewriting in college English courses, was written by Wendy Major. Her paper, written for the English Department of Texas Tech University, contains an extensive bibliography on freewriting and other such techniques. It is reproduced here with the permission of Dr. Fred Kemp, Director of Composition at Texas Tech University.

    Clustering is similar to another process called Brainstorming. Clustering is something that you can do on your own or with friends or classmates to try to find inspiration in the connection between ideas. The process is similar to freewriting in that as you jot down ideas on a piece of paper or on the blackboard, you mustn't allow that ugly self-censor to intrude and say that your idea (or anyone else's) is dumb or useless. Write it down anyway. In Clustering, you jot down only words or very short phrases. Use different colored pens as ideas seem to suggest themselves in groups. Use printing or longhand script to suggest that ideas are main thoughts or supportive ideas. Don't bother to organize too neatly, though, because that can impede the flow of ideas. Don't cross anything out because you can't tell where an idea will lead you. When you get a few ideas written down, you can start to group them, using colored circles or whatever. Draw linking lines as connections suggest themselves.

    Below is a finished example of Clustering. It is printed here with permission of the aforementioned Thruston Parry. The assignment was to write a Cause and Effect Paper on the weather phenomenon known as El Niño. If you have a very fast modem connection or you're working in a computer lab, you can click HERE or on the image below for an animated sequence showing how the clustering might have happened. (A large image file — 532 kb — is involved, and we don't encourage you to download it without a fast connection; if the download stalls, you can return to this page by clicking on the RETURN link below the image, or you can click on STOP and then BACK.)

    Points to Ponder:
    • Do you think you could write an essay based on the ideas clustered here?
    • Can you draw additional links between concepts?
    • Are there ideas listed above that you'd reject as irrelevant or too much to deal with?
    • Can you think of some ideas (or a whole set of ideas) that should have been included but weren't?
    • What about the causes of El Niño? Should they be included in this essay?
    • Can you come up with a Thesis Statement that would be appropriate for an essay based on this clustering of ideas?

    It might prove useful to organize the ideas that suggest themselves during the freewriting and clustering exercises into a preliminary outline form. It is possible to write a paper without an outline, but it might suggest that your paper lacks organization if it proves impossible to write an outline that describes the thinking process behind your paper. Outlining never hurt; how helpful it is depends on what kind of thinker you are. At the least, a tentative outline can suggest areas in which your paper needs additional work or supporting details to bolster main ideas or, on the other hand, areas which have too much emphasis and need to be pruned down to avoid an imbalance. It might also help you to see how ideas are related and where connections or transitions are necessary between sections of your paper. Furthermore, the outline will help you visualize how ideas fit within the thesis statement that is taking shape in your mind. Remember that your outline is only a tentative skeleton to hang ideas on; limbs can be lopped off or added as the writing proceeds. Your instructor might require you to submit a formal outline for approval before you write your paper or to go along with your final draft. If that is so, this tentative outlining process will serve you well later on.

    The Guide to Writing Research Papers has a special section on writing outlines, and we recommend you review that section by clicking HERE. From that document, here is one image that might prove especially helpful, a sample outline (from the MLA Handbook) of another proposed paper. The important thing to notice about it is how supporting details are arranged beneath more important ideas and the outline branches out (toward the right) as ideas become more supportive in nature. Logic demands that an "A" be followed by a "B." (If there is no "B," maybe there shouldn't be an "A," or "A" should be incorporated into the paper in some other way.)

    Based on the MLA's sample, here is Thruston Parry's tentative outline for his proposed paper on the effects of El nNiño:
    1. Disastrous Weather Effects
      1. December Ice Storm in Maine
        1. huge power outage
        2. schools out 2 wks
        3. jobs lost
        4. cost in trees
        5. replacing power poles, etc.
      2. Rains in CA
        1. mudslides
        2. highways ripped apart
        3. expensive homes in ocean
        4. insurance costs
      3. Weather in FL
        1. Killer tornadoes
        2. freeze in March
          1. dead oranges
          2. costs of other fruits
      4. Other Disasters
        1. Flash floods in AZ
        2. ????
    2. Not so bad effects
      1. Mild winter in New England
      2. Flowers in Death Valley Desert
      3. Skiing conditions in CO
      4. Mild winter in upper plains
    3. Long-term effects
      1. Power lines go underground
      2. Landscape
        1. trees
        2. ????
    4. Really important effects
      1. Sense of powerlessness
      2. Fear of next winter
    Points to Ponder:
    • Are we closer to being able to write a paper than we were before we created the outline?
    • Do any transitions between ideas suggest themselves?
    • Is anything left out of our outline? Would you have organized the thoughts in the clustering exercise differently?
    • Does the outline seem balanced or is part of it overwhelming the rest?
    • There is no Thesis Statement yet. Does the outline help us resolve what that controlling idea might be?
    • Before finally sitting down to write our paper on El Niño, we might check out what we can find out about it on the internet at a site like this one from the Environmental News Network — being careful, of course, to give proper credit for any ideas we borrow and not to let the thoughts of others overshadow our own good ideas.

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