The starting line

by Marie Sherman

Regardless of the page count, number of required reference resources, topic complexity, or prior writing experience, oftentimes I find that the hardest part of trying to work on a new writing assignment is figuring out where to begin! Well, since the semester has certainly begun rolling, and many of us are having to start big papers, here are some strategies to help get you writing.

Your first step should be to make sure you understand the assignment. Read through it and highlight the important aspects; the different requirements, due dates, formatting style and other helpful tips provided by your professor (take a look at this helpful blog post about using the Assignment sheet as a checklist!). Be sure you make note of any questions you have and find a helpful resource to talk to: your professor, a TA, or a writing tutor (we’re always happy to help)! Once you are confident that you have a clear sense of what you’re supposed to do, it’s time to embark on your writing journey.

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I don’t have a verifiable source on this, but an ancient writing tutor probably said, “An essay of a thousand pages begins with a single word.”

Hopefully you don’t have any thousand-page essays to write this semester, but in order to begin writing anything, you have to start somewhere. Something that can be very helpful is to begin by simply getting any ideas you have out on a page. This can take place in many ways: doing a free write, jotting down notes, creating a mind map (a diagram of your ideas combining the use of words, symbols, and arrows – see a previous Write On blog post about Getting your thoughts on paper )… whatever you can do to begin thinking about your topic and all the possible directions you could go. Take as much time as you need with this part of the process. Sometimes it’s a few minutes, and other times you may want to spend a few hours sorting through your thoughts. Keep in mind that depending on the type of paper you are writing, it can be helpful to do this step once you have already done some initial reading, or whilst you are doing your research.

After you have accumulated some starter ideas, you can begin to lay the foundation for your paper. Take a look at what you’ve written and find the big idea(s) that resonate most with you. You can also look for connections between your ideas and highlight them. Once you know what you want to focus on, then you can move forward with planning your paper and dive right into writing (check out tips on Making an outline). All the best with your journey!

Marie Sherman is a sophomore at Principia College studying education and global studies. When not writing, she is probably running around campus or dancing!

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