How to Start Writing: 3 Simple Steps

How to Start Writing: 3 Simple Steps

You finally sit down to write that college essay/personal statement/memoir. Your computer is charged. You open a new document.

Your screen is suddenly transformed into a sea of white. You don’t know where to start. The options seem endless. You begin to feel paralyzed. You have two options:

  1. Continue staring glassy-eyed at the blank screen,
  2. Quickly shut the computer down and leave. Do anything that feels productive: mow the lawn, sort the laundry, clean out your backpack. Anything feels better than staring into the boundless, open writing space.

Not knowing how to start writing is a big part of the reason why most people have a mild to severe aversion to this beautiful process. Having experienced this paralyzing feeling during most of my writing life, one of our goals at Gala Creative Writing is to make the process fun (yes, fun!) or at least, slightly less excruciating.

Here are three steps to help you start writing authentic, powerful essays now (because the laundry can wait).

One of our goals at Gala Crative Writing is to make the process fun (yes, fun!) or at least, slightly less excruciating.

1. Find a writing prompt.

I didn’t discover writing prompts until I was 30 and sitting in my first Creative Writing grad school class: Memoir. For most of my early writing career, I’d sit down in front of my computer at Starbucks in the corner of Rue de Rive in Geneva and ask myself: “How should I begin?” The answer was almost always: “I have no clue.” This made the writing process feel frustrating, time-consuming, and obscure. I’d usually get up and pop into Ladurée next door, eat a lemon macaron, and call it a day (writing-wise at least).

The magical thing about writing prompts is they give you an immediate starting point. Instead of asking “How should I begin?,” find questions with concrete answers. For example, if I ask: “What’s my favorite fruit and why?” I have no choice but to answer: “mango.” Next, I’ll have a go at describing a mango and why I’m willing to pay 5 Francs for a single piece of fruit. It’s a bit like greasing the wheels or overcoming inertia: once you put some words on a page, the writing begins to flow. A few minutes later, I have a page filled with some pretty deep discoveries about mango. For example: Sucking on the sticky, hot meat around the seed transports me to the sands of Morrocoy, Venezuela. Or: Eating a mango makes me feel grounded to the Earth, immersed in life’s sweetness. Conclusion: Mango brings me home, wherever in the world I happen to be.

Think of your mind as a vast space filled with little nuggets of gold. These nuggets are potential stories that live within you. Writing prompts are a vessel that help download these nuggets from your mind to the page.

How do you find adequate writing prompts? You can start by browsing online resources or writing guides and seeing which questions you’re drawn to. Follow your gut: what questions do you feel like answering? Here’s one prompt I always find useful:

Pick an object that has meaning for you. Place it in front of you. Touch it, feel it. Now write about this object, using the senses to describe it. Write about any memories it brings up. Explain why you chose this object. Why is it important to you?

You can repeat this exercise over and over again with different objects, or pick a symbol from a recent or recurring dream (an animal, a voyage, a color). Soon you will begin to see that your very rich and seemingly hidden interior world is actually quite downloadable. Your essence lies just below the surface!

2. Forget about word count, grammar, and relevance.

When I speak to students during the early stages of the college essay writing process, the first thing that always comes up is word count.

“I stopped writing because I was already over my word count.”

“I’m worried because I’m almost over the word count.”

“How can I keep writing if I’m already over the word count?”

The first thing I ask students is to forget about word count altogether. “Trust me,” I assure them. “I promise that in the end, your essay will fit.”

 What students eventually discover is that you can’t write a meaningful, authentic essay without developing your ideas. Idea development often requires pages and pages of (gasp!) unedited, messy, free writing. That’s right: there are no shortcuts when it comes to writing (at least not at this stage!).

When you sit down during the early draft stage, set yourself up for success. I encourage students to find a comfortable place, hide their cell phones, and schedule enough time (30 mins to an hour) of uninterrupted writing. Why is this unfiltered writing session so important? Remember: your story begins as gold nuggets hidden in the vast expanses of your mind. The easiest way to bring that information down to the page is through a subconscious process. To access the subconscious, you must write freely and at length, without worrying about word choice, grammar, or that picture someone just posted on Instagram.

The more you write during this initial stage, the sooner you’ll get to your gold nuggets. Don’t worry about anything else: there’ll be plenty of time to revise later. You won’t have any content to revise if you’re constantly editing yourself during this critical writing phase.

A word about relevance: many times we think we know exactly what we want to write. Often these initial ideas are developed consistently throughout the essay, and everything works out great. Other times, we generate seemingly irrelevant content during the idea generation stage. I always encourage my students and clients to remain open to all types of nuggets. Ideas that seem trivial often turn out to become powerful material for your work. Like life, writing is often a non-linear process. Better to embrace the unexpected.

Nowadays, many individuals and businesses seek to communicate through social media, a much more condensed mode of communication. The same rules apply: you won’t write an effective Tweet or Instagram post by trying to nail it down in one short draft. If you spend some time developing your ideas during a draft stage, it’ll be much simpler to shape your message into a short, effective format during the revision stage.

3. Become a detective (or enlist the help of a good one).

You’ve found a writing prompt and written a long, uncensored draft. What next?

Many times during first drafts, we gloss over the difficult, challenging, or even interesting parts of our journey. Why do we do this? Part of it has to do with the fact that these experiences are difficult to understand and/or process. It’s a bit like downloading a heavy file on your computer. If the file only gets partially downloaded, we have to do some extra work to decipher the rest of the message.

In the first draft, you downloaded a few gold nuggets from your mind. Now they’re hidden somewhere in your text. To move forward the next stage, you have to find them.

Think of yourself as a detective, looking at your early draft for clues. What words stand out to you? What experiences have you mentioned, but not explained in depth? What parts of your journey are explicitly missing from the text?

If you’re having trouble identifying the gold nuggets, you can share your early draft with a neutral person: someone who is not invested in your process and won’t be affected by the outcome. It’s also important that this person is respectful of your work, and that you feel absolutely comfortable sharing. When seeking help from a neutral person, be clear about what you’re asking them to do. Explain that you’re still in the idea development stage, and thus not interested (yet!) in editing or revising suggestions. What parts of the essay stand out to them? What did they want to know more about? Where do they feel you stopped writing too soon?

Once you’ve identified your gold nuggets, it’s time to start writing into them. Think of yourself as a sculptor chiseling away at metal. The more you write into these ideas, the closer and closer you’ll get to the heart of your story.

For more creative writing tips or to get personalized writing help, contact us.