Not knowing how to start writing is very common – and it is not a bad thing at all. If you struggle with knowing where to begin with your writing, you’re in good company. The first paragraph, the first chapter and the first page are sources of sweet agony to most of us.
There are two main obstacles when it comes to starting writing, and I’ll talk about each of them in turn:
a) the physical act of writing, and
b) knowing what to write about.
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The Physical Act Of Writing
The theory is simple. Sit your bum in a chair, open a word processor and start typing.
But this is OH SO DIFFICULT to do in real life, right?
Why is it difficult? I think I might actually write a separate post about this very thing, because I’m willing to bet it’s the biggest contributor to writing-failure out there. Just getting into the chair and opening the page. Crazy, eh?
So what can you do if you really want to write but the idea of actually sitting down and writing brings you out in a cold sweat?
Fear of Being Crap
There are two big reasons why actually writing anything can be hard. Firstly, you’re subconsciously worried that anything you get down on paper is going to suck. It’s going to be so bad you’d rather cry in public than show anyone the words you’ve blurted onto the page. You know that re-reading it will make you realise that writing is a dream that’s best left in your head.
The first draft everyone writes is rubbish. Everyone!
The first draft is more like a skeleton. It’s an idea, a map. Once you have the skeleton, it’s the subsequent edits made with care and attention that fill out the muscle of the story, that add the tendons and the ligaments, finally polishing it so that the skin can be perfectly weaved over everything to form a multi-layered story with depth and meaning.
Don’t worry about how to start writing. Accept the badness of the first words. Write them anyway and embrace their rough edges and awkwardness. These words are your babies and under your care they are going to grow up to be beautiful, well-adjusted and fully-functioning adults.
If fear is a big problem for you, I recommend reading a book called Stop Worrying; Start Writing. If books aren’t you thing (hang on… is that even possible if you’re reading this?), or you are so busy that you can’t fit another book into your life, Sarah also produces a podcast called The Worried Writer. Check out both and take some serious comfort in the fact that imposter syndrome probably runs higher in writers than any other profession.
It’s Hard Work
The second reason we procrastinate for so long over actually writing anything is that writing is much harder work than watching TV, going to work, doing the housework and tending to the garden.
Writing requires the constant use of your brain to generate words out of nothing and get them down in a coherent order. Don’t underestimate the energy required to do this. That’s not even starting on things like research, outlining, and ordering fictional events so they make sense.
To circumvent this issue, you need to do two things:
- work on building a daily writing habit, and
- find the best time for you to write.
For me, I always write better in the daytime, and I tend to be more fluent in the afternoons than the mornings. Something about the pressing deadline of collecting the kids and not having achieved anything that day makes me more likely to work on something, but also I think I am quite high energy first thing in the morning so sitting down to write first thing makes me feel lethargic.
Work with your body AND your circumstances. If you are a night owl, make that commitment to write every evening from 10pm-11pm. If you simply can’t write when the house is a mess, get the house in order and stop it from being an excuse not to do what you want to do.
Identify your obstacles and remove them. Self-knowledge gives you the power to push through and achieve.
Knowing What To Write About
You don’t have to start at the beginning when you tell a story. And you don’t even have to start at the physical beginning of your own work. There is absolutely nothing to stop you writing the end, and filling things in from there. Or from jumping right into the middle and doing the beginning last.
Stories are not always told in chronological order, so don’t worry about a beginning that may end up being revealed later in the book anyway. Anxiety over the first page, or the first chapter can stop you ever getting anywhere.
If the start of the story has you flummoxed, press return a few times and then type something like:
The beginning goes here and probably involves X doing Y.
Now, underneath that, start writing what you DO know you want to write.
All Writing Is Good
Something else I suggest is to get words down when anything you like the idea of pops into your head.
I have a folder on my hard drive called “excerpts”. In here I have little snippets of things that I create out of the blue. Paragraphs to describe the feelings invoked by the weather, or by other people. Sentences about regret, love, joy. Sometimes even a dialogue between two people. I also have another folder called “ideas”, and in there I write down any and all ideas for stories that catch my attention for more than a moment or two.
It doesn’t matter if you never use the snippets you write down, or if the ideas never come to fruition. What’s important is you’re connecting with your desire to write. Even though you’re not actively writing anything in particular, you’re thinking about writing and making notes about writing. Both of these things help to bridge the gap between daily life and writing life.
Write What You Want To Write
Lastly, I recommend writing whatever the hell you want to write, over and above everything else. Don’t choose a competition and write a story to fit the entry requirements. Don’t look at what’s popular in novels and write something similar.
Write what you are utterly passionate about – write what you love. Whether it’s erotic fiction or historical drama, crafting a truly meaningful story that others will love reading can only come from a place of commitment to the words you want to share.
At the end of the day, the best advice when it comes to how to start writing, or in fact how to start anything, is just to start. It really doesn’t matter whether you focus on short stories or a novel, getting started and keeping going are the two things that make all things possible.
Now get writing!