When You Just Can’t Get Started

On Sunday evening, writing teachers from around the country joined together on Twitter for the #NCTEChat, in celebration of the National Day on Writing.  For an hour, the tweets flew as we shared our writing beliefs and habits.  One of the discussion topics was about how to get started when you have an idea, but you don’t yet have words on the page.   Always looking to share real and authentic writing tips with my students, I compiled this list of six strategies for when writers are in a writing rut and just can’t get started.

1.  Just Write
2.  Make a List
3.  Imitate Another Writer
4.  Have a Routine.  Write Every Day.
5.  Talk to Someone
6.  Write When You’re Not Writing

1.   Just Write

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When you are feeling intimidated by the prospect of the blank page, just write.  Anything.  Write the ending, write the beginning, write about a character, write about how you decided on the topic, write some facts.  Just write.  You can go back and mine it later for the good stuff.  Right now, you just need to get some words down.  Like the novelist E.M. Forester said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”  Go ahead, see what you have to say.

2.  Make a List

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When you are not ready to “write long”, sometimes it helps to just make a list.   You could make a list of ideas or a list of words.  Making a list can feel non-threatening, especially to reluctant or frozen writers.  Yet, listing still stimulates ideas and can be the springboard for writing longer pieces.

Below is a page from my writer’s notebook where I made a list of possible themes for a photo essay about my daughter.  Underneath, I chose one of the themes and made another list of possible pages.  Listing can be a great start to a writing project.

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3. Imitate Another Writer

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This is another great strategy.   Find something that is similar to what you’re trying to write, and imitate it.  Of course, that doesn’t mean copy it!  However, it might mean that you try the same structure or use similar word choice.  Perhaps you borrow a line and try writing off that line.  This is one way to unleash your own writing voice – start by imitating someone else’s.

4. Have a Routine.  Write Every Day.

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 As adult writers, it is important to have a writing routine, to know that we are going to take time each day to write.  When a new project is mulling around in our minds, this set-aside time is often just the spark we need to generate our first words.   As teachers, we provide some of this routine by teaching a writing workshop.  We have the expectation that we will write every single day… even when we feel like we can’t get started!

I’ve been writing Slice of Life Stories with the 3rd graders every day.  When faced with a blank page and time to write, something always comes out.

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5.  Talk To Someone

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 You need at least one person to talk to about your writing.  I frequently talk to my husband about ideas, and he reads most of my writing before it goes public.  He offers helpful feedback by telling me when my words don’t sound quite right.  When I have an idea, I can talk it through with him first.  I also turn to my friend and colleague, Jill, who has become my unpaid editor.  You just can’t write in isolation.  Writing is social.  In the classroom, the students can have writing partnerships or groups.  Here is an excellent blog post about how to set-up those partnerships for success.  You can turn to these writing partners when you can’t get started.  Sometimes, talking an idea through is all you need.

6.  Write When You’re Not Writing

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Some writers call it rehearsing; some writers call it envisioning.  I love this strategy and use it often.  I sometimes say I do my best writing in the shower.  Let’s teach kids that writers are always writing, even when they’re not writing.  Writers often begin writing in their head, long before pencil hits paper (or fingers hit keyboard).   Maybe you’re not ready to start writing today, but you should be thinking, always thinking, of starting.

I like the authenticity of this list, made by real writers who have real struggles.  I can’t wait to share it with students in a whole-group minilesson at the start of our next unit.  I’ll also tuck this list in my pocket for one-on-one conferences when I see students having trouble getting their first words on the page.