How to start writing

According to Google search, there are about 769,000,000 places on the Internet that discuss how to start writing.

Despite having all those resources, most of the teens and adults who wind up in my first year college composition courses don’t know how to start writing.

One student stands out in my memory as the poster child for the how-to-start problem. He was a computer programmer in the years when many programmers were self taught rather than college educated.

computers in use at NASA.
Flight Director Robert Castle uses laptop while monitoring space walk

The student contacted me privately by email the first day of class. He said that he was taking ENG101 for the third time.

Once he failed the course because he spent so long trying to decide what to write about that he never turned in any work.

His second time through the course, he came up with a topic in time to write a paper, but not with enough time to correct his work. That time he failed the course because of mechanical errors.

He was attempting the course a third time only because his daughter was getting her bachelor’s degree in communications and he was embarrassed to tell her he couldn’t pass ENG101.

The guy’s email made perfectly good sense. There were no serious mechanical errors. I could see no reason for his failing English except that he didn’t know how to start writing.

So I told him what he needed to know. My response went something like this:

This is a writing course. The object is for you to learn the process of writing.

It doesn’t matter what you write about. You don’t have to write about an important topic. You don’t have to write about something that matters to you personally; in fact, its often easier to write on a topic about which you don’t care at all.

Instead of looking for the perfect topic, pick the first topic that comes to mind about which you think you could reasonably write 500-750 words.

Work with that topic.

The writing process is no different for a so-so topic than for the perfect topic.

The topic might not work, but you’ll find that out right away, and you can pick a different topic.  You’ll have spent less time working on the so-so topic that didn’t pan out than you spent trying to discover the perfect topic.

Once you’ve learned the process of writing, then you can write about topics that actually matter to you because by then you will know enough about how to write that you can concentrate on what you’re writing.

That was all the NASA guy needed to know. He got an A without breaking a sweat.

If you are going to succeed in teaching all students who come through your classroom door to write competently, you, too, have to begin by teaching them how to start writing.

I suggest you have students think about how people start learning other skills, whether it be playing a musical instrument or a sport, keyboarding, cartooning, cooking, or simply brushing their teeth.

When students grasp the fact that writing is a skill that is learned much as other skills are, they are ready to start writing.

Above: NASA Photo ID: STS061(S)103 File Name: 10093034.jpg  Flight Director Robert E. Castle uses a laptop computer to aid his busy tasks during one of the five space walks performed to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) temporarily berthed in Endeavour’s cargo bay. STS-61 lead Flight Director Milt Heflin is at right edge of frame.