How to start writing when you feel stuck

Writer tapping pencil on blank notebook

Photo via Visualhunt.

Ever had a writing assignment or a new story idea, but the blank screen or notebook page kept mocking you in silence? Just me? I find that blinking cursor to be particularly impertinent. As if it’s saying, “Why. Aren’t. You. Writing. Any. Thing. Yet? Are. You. That. Inept?”

Cheeky little brat.

Well, never fear. With these steps you’ll be able to wipe that smug look off of its face with the punch of a few keys, before it can even blink another insult at you.

Figure out what you’re writing first

The first and most important step before you write a single word is to know what you’re trying to write. Most likely, not knowing what you’re writing exactly is what’s paralyzing you. Answering the question “What am I writing?” sounds simple, and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Is it an article? Is it a poem? Is it a story? Is it a school assignment? Okay, that’s the easy part.

Here’s the harder part: If it’s an article, what is its purpose—to encourage, to educate, to inspire? If it’s a poem or story, what kind is it? Is it romantic? An adventure? Is it tragic? Do you have a specific message you’re trying to get across? Do you want to spur people into action or just leave them with a warm feeling in their hearts?

In short, what is the point? What are you really trying to say?

Once you’ve wrestled with that and have come to a conclusion, the rest with follow. If you try to plunge into it without really knowing what you’re writing, you’ll end up with a lot of wasted words as you cut, rewrite, and edit repeatedly.

Need an example? I’m writing a blog post to help budding writers get over the feeling of paralysis that comes with a new project. I’ll provide concrete steps to follow so that their blank page becomes a finished project with the least amount of hair pulled out as possible.

Next, make a loose outline

As a student, I always hated outlines. Teachers would make me fill out outline worksheets before I could write my research paper, like this:

Example of an outline using Roman numerals and alphabet letters

Just writing that out for this post made me shudder. Ugh. I really hated those things. Sometimes I found it easier to secretly write my paper first and then make the outline match afterward.

But that’s not the kind of outline I’m talking about here. You don’t need anything that formal or rigid. Blog post outlines are the easiest examples, so here, you can see mine for this post:

A text document showing the title and subheads for this post

As you can see, I figured out what I was writing about and put that at the top. For blog posts, that’s a good place to start for the title. An opening sentence to flesh out the title/the point of the post can help. Next, I wrote the subheads that will lead each point so that as I’m writing the post I don’t lose my way. It makes writing blog posts quicker and less rambly (because I am definitely prone to rambling).

If I’m honest, this kind of outline isn’t that different from my school-age outlines, but it’s much more casual. I find the end result feels less wooden, too (blog post vs research paper), which I consider a boon.

Outlining like this works for stories, too. What do I want to write? How about a YA romance that encourages friendships before relationships? Great, now I know what I’m writing about. Let’s flesh it out a bit: The story is about a two high schoolers, Nathan and Amy, who struggle to fit in at school but find a place of belonging in each other. Okay. What’s my outline?

Amy is new. She is sweet but quiet; she doesn’t stand out. She meets Nathan in class. He is very showy and a know-it-all, and doesn’t mind disrupting class because he likes the attention. He finds her unflappability fascinating.

It is quickly evident to all, especially the teachers, that Amy and Nathan pair well. Nathan is smart but Amy can keep up, so he competes privately with her instead of annoying everyone else with his competitive spirit. She also accepts his quirks without judgement, which in turn tones him down. Their schedules are arranged so they share many of their classes, which allows Nathan’s classes to run more smoothly.

They learn about each other. Nathan is from a big family full of big personalities, and he’s had trouble finding his place. He deals with loneliness by trying to draw attention. Amy lives with her single mom, and has developed a “good girl” personality to anchor her drained mother at the expense of her own needs. She is the first to recognize in Nathan her own struggles with loneliness, and sharing this thought with Nathan seals their friendship.

Amy’s mother is in a car crash and is hospitalized. It is the first time Nathan witnesses Amy crying. They struggle through their new roles of Amy depending on Nathan (instead of vice versa), but the process turns their friendship into a relationship. Both gain confidence in themselves and their own abilities, as well as find a place of belonging in each other.

Amy’s mother comes home. Nathan’s family warmly welcomes her and Amy, and the families develop a tight bond. Nathan and Amy make a private promise to love each other always as the story ends.

There! Now I have my whole story outlined, whipped up in a few minutes. All that’s left is to flesh out the parts I’ve already decided and then smooth those together with new writing for the parts I don’t have yet (maybe there’s a subplot about how Nathan relates to his siblings, or Amy has a part time job).

It’s much easier to write a novel this way since I know where I’m going. I don’t have to make it up as I go along, only to end up throwing out large chunks that don’t work with the new direction the story ends up taking me. Or worse, write myself into a corner and end up having to abandon the project. I was able to work out those awful kinks in the outline in a few minutes instead of wasting days or weeks fighting them in the body of my novel.

Side note: Your outline isn’t written in stone. Remember, it’s casual, not rigid like school outlines that are judged by a teacher. It’s a tool to help you write your story without inhibition, but if something doesn’t work or you come up with a better idea, it’s okay to change the outline. Just fix the outline before you write any more in your project to save yourself some time.

Fill out each point in your outline

This next step is fairly obvious. Take a look at that image of my blog post outline and compare it to the actual post you’re reading. See how it’s fleshed out with all these paragraphs full of details? I just went point by point and explained what I meant by each subhead. It’s really that simple.

The handy thing about outlines is that they keep you from losing your way, so you can choose to write from the beginning to the end, or to skip around from point to point (or in the case of a story, scene to scene), as you see fit, until all the points (scenes) are addressed. Write in whatever order is easiest for you.

Smooth things together

Here’s where you make sure the piece flows together as a whole. This is particularly important if in the previous step you jumped around instead of writing consecutively from start to finish. Did you reference things your reader hasn’t gotten to yet, because you wrote it out of order? Do you need a transition from point A to point C? Better write that point B now.

Read your piece from start to finish and note any clunky parts… and then fix those clunky parts. This is the time to look at the big picture, rather than worrying about little things like word choice, typos, or punctuation. It’s the first stage of editing, but it doesn’t feel that way because it still involves a lot of writing.

Edit, edit, edit. And then edit again.

Now you’re elbows deep in editing. This is where you read through your piece looking for all of the little things. If you liken your writing to hair, you’ve already finger combed through it, so it’s more or less presentable. But now it’s time to go through with a brush and get all of the tangles out.

Once you’ve done that… you’re still not done. This time, read your piece out loud to yourself. I promise you will find more things that need tinkering that way. When we’re forced to read something aloud, we catch things our eyes gloss over when reading silently because they’re used to seeing it.

Our minds have a habit of filling in any accidental blanks with what’s supposed to be there, which reading in a new way can help you catch. Reading your work aloud will also help you notice weird rhythms, repetitive words, or accidental alliterations (ha!) that you might not have noticed while reading in your head.

Once you’ve done that… you’re STILL not done! This time you let the piece rest. You close the document, you put the notebook in a drawer, you lock your writing in a chest and bury it on a deserted island—whatever you have to do to ignore it for a while and not take a peek.

How long you let it rest depends on its length. Something shorter like a blog post can rest a few hours to overnight. Something long like a novel probably should rest one to three months. After the rest, you’ll come back to it with fresh eyes and be able to spot things you couldn’t before, and you’ll also be able to polish the best parts to make them even better.

I followed these steps with this post, too. Can you spot the differences between the current post and my original outline? I stuck pretty close to it, but there were some changes.

You’re done!

Now you can submit that assignment or give your story to someone else to read with confidence. Look at that! You were stuck on a blank page, not knowing how to start, and now you’ve got a finished piece. Not bad, eh?

How do you get started when you don’t know where to begin? Maybe your method is more simple than mine, like putting on your lucky writing hat, or using a writing prompt (like “write a poem that uses the words ‘silver,’ ‘toad,’ and ‘happy’ “). After all, “figure out what you’re writing” sounds simple, but often can be the hardest part! By the way, am I really the only one who loathes that blinky little line on my screen that I swear judges me every time I hesitate when typing? Please tell me I’m not alone.