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.

Learning to Write by Trial and Error

Building block pyramid broken, human figure toppledSome kinds of knowledge are acquired only  by trial and error.  For example, students need to see a direct cause- and-effect relationship between a particular writing choice and the its result before they understand the need for planning before they write.

If students discover they messed up only after they get their grade, writing teachers need to get students to see where in the writing process where a different choice could have produced a different outcome.  Focus their attention by asking, “Where’s the first place you could have made a change that would have changed how this outcome?”

The biggest messes are caused by not having a clear working thesis. The working thesis should be the first sentence students write; it’s the main idea that directs everything they do. Students may recall that as a fact they’ve filed under “dumb stuff my teacher says,” but until need experience of attempting to write without a working thesis before they realize effort they put into initial planning pays big dividends later.

Allow students correct as best they can  before deadline any goofs they discover before they’ve submitted a final draft .  Refusing to let students modify a topic or outline after they discover it won’t work is just plain dumb.

Giving students extra time to correct a first-part-of-writing-process error they discover at the last minute is dumb, too.  The whole point of planning is to develop the ability to figure out how to produce desired outcomes without trying all the available options.

Deadlines are marvelous for concentrating attention.

I learned that by trial and error.

Photo credit: “Stability 3” uploaded by Avolore http://www.sxc.hu/photo/596909

Just One Thing to Learn

the number one High school and college essays may have an arbitrary length (e.g. 2,500 words) or structure (e.g. abstract, introduction, literature review, discussion). However, the way writers go about writing nonfiction exposition is the same regardless of length or number of paragraphs. The expository writing process does not change. It always begins with finding a topic and goes on to:

  1. developing a working thesis on the topic
  2. finding support for and opposition to the working thesis
  3. organizing a response around the working thesis or some modification of it
  4. drafting the paper
  5. editing the paper

Hopelessly oversimplified?

Of course it is.

That’s its virtue.

Once students have gotten the hang of the process, which many can master in third or fourth grade, teachers can teach them how to approach more complicated topics and formats as modifications of what they already know.  When students aren’t focusing on their fear of something new, they can focus on their writing.

So tell students they have just one process to learn.

They will love you for it.

Analogy: 1 writing process, many looks

I was trying to explain why students must learn only one writing process to write nonfiction ranging from how-to articles to arguments.  The teachers understood when I used an analogy to sewing a dress.

Once Susi Sewer can make a short-sleeved dress from a pattern, she knows the process well enough to make a long-sleeved dress with contrasting bodice and skirt from that same pattern. The appearance of the product changes; the process does not.

While that analogy worked for teachers,  the analogy to sewing a dress would not work for their middle school students. Middle schoolers need an analogy to something that’s part of their experience.

A better analogy for youngsters is to the process of getting dressed.  Middle schoolers get dressed the same way whether they put on their soccer uniforms or put on their Halloween costumes, but they end up looking very different.

By analogy, depending on the materials used, the products of nonfiction writing can each be built with the same process yet look very different.

Low-stress, high productivity writing tips

Cecelia Munzenmaier takes what she calls the Julia Child approach to writing: learn the basics, practice, correct what you can, and accept the fact that your writing won’t always be perfect.

In her forthcoming book Write More, Stress Less: From Getting Ideas to Getting It Done, Munzenmaier draws on her experience as composition instructor and freelance writer, as well as research into writing and other creative activities, to present a smorgasbord of ideas that will appeal to writers with a wide range of needs and interests.

Both fiction and nonfiction writers will find suggestions for ways of doing things that their English teacher may not have advocated but may be just what they need in a certain situation.

Munzenmaier assumes readers have at least a general idea of how to write the kind of material they are planning. She organizes ideas into four sections that represent four stages of any writing process: getting ideas, determining a way to organize material, constructing the actual piece of writing, and “quality control,” which I like as an umbrella term for revision and editing tasks.

Many suggestions Munzenmaier offers are ones I also suggest, such as editing for a single error at a time and not feeling obligated to write a formal outline—or any outline—if some other way of organizing material works better for you.

She also suggests some resources I recommend writing teachers could try with students, such as the Write or Die software and the Polodormo technique for managing time.

However unlike my work, however, Write More, Stress Less includes many ideas that would appeal to writers of fiction or of nonfiction narrative. Many novice writing teachers would undoubtedly appreciate having Munzenmaier’s volume as a kind of extended glossary to writing techniques for a wider range of types of writing than I discuss.

Since I’m a linear thinker, the nonlinear arrangement of material within sections annoyed me. It would delight many of my students and critics who are not linear thinkers. I was also irritated by the absence of in-text tags to signal why author A was an authority on a particular topic. That information is in an appendix. Again, I suspect that many readers would be pleased not to have those details in the text itself.

Write More, Stress Less is available through Booklocker,  Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

[2/27/2014 updated links to booksellers]