Matt Jukes tweeted about a familiar situation the other day:
“Home early as I really needed to write a paper – but now I am staring at a blank text file and occasionally writing then deleting a title.”
I know what he means. A lot of people do. That terror of the blank page is something I’ve heard people mention many times. When you have something to say, how do you start saying it? What should the first sentence say? What should the first word of the first sentence be?
It’s not knowing the answers to those questions that leaves some people stuck at the beginning for ages – hours, sometimes.
I have a tip: when you get stuck like this, you can get round it by skipping the beginning completely. Instead, start writing the middle.
Assume you’ve already explained the background
When you start in the middle, you can start with what’s uppermost in your mind. You can assume that the reader knows all the background they need to know, because it’s already been set out in the introduction (that you’ve not written yet).
You can try actually picturing yourself sitting in front of a reader. If no-one else is nearby, you could even start talking out loud, to find out what you’d say to them if you were having a conversation. (I do this all the time when I’m working from home.)
Once you’ve written the middle, the end follows on almost automatically. The words have a flow – one line leads to the next, one paragraph to the next.
So if you start in the middle, it’s easier to find yourself writing all the way to the end.
Use what you’ve written to shape the beginning
Now, step away from your words for a bit. Go for coffee, or lunch, or work on something completely different for a little while.
Later, come back to the words. Read them through.
You’ll see what’s missing. You’ll see straight away what the reader needs to know before they get to the beginning of the middle.
So now you can start writing the beginning. You don’t have to do it in order, either – you could work backwards, writing the third paragraph, then the second, then the first. Sometimes, you might find that the ideal first paragraph and the ideal first sentence and the ideal first line are sparked by words you’ve already used further down. You can use the rest of the article as raw material for its own introduction.
There’s a nice quote from American author E. L. Doctorow that sums it all up quite well:
“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing, and learn as you go.”
I’d amend that slightly: you start from what you know best, and learn how to help your reader understand it as well as you do.