Chapter 3: FIRST DRAFTS
20+ Ways to Start First Drafts
See also "Six
Student Responses about Starting to Write."
This chapter goes into detail about how to start first drafts.
If you want an overview of starting, see "Chapter 2. How
to Focus When Writing."
There are many methods of starting, depending on
your own self, your contents, the type of paper you are writing, and what you
know about that type of paper. This chapter discusses some of the most
important alternatives in starting. (If you are looking for patterns for
organizing a paragraph or very short paper, go directly to Section "B.
In a sense, there are just as many ways of starting first
drafts as there are people. You must find your own method. In addition,
you often may find that different
writing assignments require different starting methods: for example, if you are writing an essay based on
your personal experience, you may prefer to use the
traditional method of freewriting--of just letting go and writing--first.
On the other hand, if you are writing a factual report, you may choose to start
with an objective outline or list. And if you happen to be, say, an
experienced news reporter or business writer, you might write only one quick
draft, well organized from the start, then edit it briefly and hand it
Another issue that concerns some people is creativity. You may possibly be
very creative in how you start writing, or you may be those who consider
themselves very uncreative. Either way, in most college writing
assignments, creativity is of no greater (or lesser) importance than
practicality, thorough thinking, good organization, and good research. In
fact, there are some college papers in which creativity may actually need to be
turned off--notably papers in which you must summarize,
report, or describe something strictly according to the facts. As a
result of all these factors, there is plenty of room for both creativity and its opposites in college
writing. You can start many college papers by being wildly (or almost
wildly) creative or by being entirely logical and practical. The
choice is yours.
There is, however, another need, a more essential one, that you must face when
you start a new paper, and that
is authenticity. Writer authenticity simply means, "How do I write what is truest and best?" Authenticity
means being true to your own best self and abilities, being true to your
content, and being true to your audience. The opposite, a lack of authenticity, can mean faking
it. Faking it can mean trying to write something you don't believe, feel, or
like; just writing
whatever might be the bare minimum of what is expected, as if you were writing a
grocery list hurriedly before going shopping; or not caring about or actively
disrespecting your audience. In the best writing, you have a three-way connection between three elements:
yourself, your content, and your readers. You must make a real connection with your content,
and your content should make a meaningful connection to your readers. As a
result, you and your readers make a real, authentic connection with each other. The best
writing makes a reader feel like he or she is listening to a friend or respected
family member. If you write in that same way--often by "talking" with just
one typical reader as if
you have something good, real, and honest to say, or even choose a friend or perhaps a
brother or sister to whom you write your essay--then your writing probably will not only sound authentic
but will also be authentic.
But how do you start your writing in an authentic way? And how can you be
authentic to every reader you meet--or to teachers or supervisors you don't even
know? Part of the answer to this question is just getting more experience
and learning more about the people for whom you write. Part of the answer,
though, is to learn better methods of starting and, later, of revising.
The previous chapter, "How
to Focus When Writing," can help you with starting methods, as can this
chapter, below. In general, though, the most important thing to remember
about starting authentically is that there are many ways of doing so.
You might choose to be authentic to your own self, your feelings, and your
thoughts by simply writing as much as you know about the subject as fast as you
can, or perhaps by imagining something related to the subject that is important
and then writing about what you imagine. This form of discovery is
authentic because you are really trying to discover what you know, or you are
trying to write it down for the sake of others. Another form of starting
out authentically is to use organizational methods such as listing, outlining,
or clustering. Such organizing is authentic if you genuinely are trying to
discover what details you know or how you want to arrange them. Yet a
third way of starting to write authentically is to ask yourself who or what your
audience is and what the audience wants, and then to authentically begin writing
to that audience in a way you believe that the audience can be reached.
Of course the eventual goal is to be authentic with all three of the elements of
authentic writing mentioned here: yourself, the content, and the audience.
However, you can achieve such authenticity through later drafts, as well.
The most important part of starting is to start in some way that is
authentic, that really represents a true attempt at connecting--with yourself,
content, or audience. If you
start this way, you are on the road to gaining authenticity in all three aspects
of your writing by the time you have finished your final draft. Here are
several ways to develop an authentic start.
Other people and situations suggest a more more
practical system. For such people--or in such situations--some form of
listing or outlining is more appropriate.
When starting to write, many people prefer a creative method called "freewriting," especially as
this method is often taught in elementary and
secondary schools. Freewriting usually starts after your subject already
is chosen. To freewrite, you simply write freely about your subject.
Using this method, you often can discover what you know about the subject.
How can writing about something help you discover what you already know?
Like talking out loud, writing is a form of "thinking out loud," except it is
done on paper. Many people understand the advantage of "talking something
through" with a friend in order to understand more about it. A lot of the
value of such talking is simply having someone listen to you as you express your
thoughts aloud. Expressing them aloud makes them clearer. Similarly,
you often can discover better what you know and think about a subject by writing
about it freely. Writing can be just another form of thinking--much like
the verbal thinking, picture thinking, and remembering that go on inside your
head. To do such thinking on paper allows you to present what you know in
a more objective form--on paper or on a computer screen--so that you can begin
to work with the material better
This type of first-draft writing can work in several ways. One is that you
can simply write anything at all about the subject--whatever comes to your
mind. Another is that you can write specifically of stories, examples, or
other details you can use to help support what you will say in the paper.
Yet another method is to pick out one body section of the paper you will write
and simply freewrite about it, then do the same with another body section,
etc. In general, if you are starting to write using this method, you do
not want to write your introduction until most or all of the paper has been
This type of writing is appropriate especially for
academic writing in general courses, especially in the liberal arts courses,
when you must argue, analyze, critique, or evaluate. It may be less useful
in courses or in a professional job in which you must write for practical,
information-oriented papers such as business or technical reports, proposals,
and recommendations. If you are inexperienced in writing a certain type of
paper, this kind of first-draft writing may be more helpful; if you are very
experienced in using the format and thinking of a certain type of paper, this
method may or may not be as useful.
For a good example of a short, powerful, freewritten first draft, go to
"Sample 1" in the "Writing a Story" chapter. This example is
one that could be used simply as a longer, developed story, it could be
developed into--or used within--some kind of argument paper, or it even could be
a rough draft for a news article.
Just as freewriting (above) is a form of
brainstorming, so is it possible to brainstorm when developing a list or making
an outline. Listing and outlining usually are considered very rational,
logical activities. However, they also can be used to develop a lot more
ideas than your conscious mind might normally deliver. If you wish to make
the most of listing and outlining, it often is wise to develop them quickly and
to include all information that occurs to you, even if at first it doesn't seem
relevant. Once you have developed a first-draft list or outline, you then
can work on it to develop it further, if needed.
Listing is particularly useful when done quickly.
Whether you start with no subject whatsoever or with an assigned one, often the
best idea is to write down everything that occurs to you as quickly as possible
within a time span of a few minutes. It is okay to try to pull your mind
back to your main subject whenever it seems to be straying. However, minds
don't always work in a straightforward manner; sometimes they reveal deeper
connections in surprising ways. For this reason, even as you keep
refocusing on the main subject, it may be useful to write down whatever your
mind thinks of within the time limit you have given it.
Here, for example, is a list I brainstormed in about
three minutes with almost no planning. In the early part of it, there are
some items that seem out of place, even silly: "rabbits," "Easter," and
"holidays." At first I thought these ideas were really off the wall,
especially mixed with talk of war and the economy. However, I decided to
keep them in the list, just in case something developed from them. Once my
list was done, I suddenly realized that rabbits might be an interesting symbol
for what President Bush is trying to do in Iraq right now: as he deals with all
the difficulties of occupying Iraq (as I write this, the occupation is only
several months old), he must sometimes feel something like a magician trying to
pull a rabbit out of a hat--a magician who has (or must use) many tricks up his
sleeve, as the saying goes. An interesting argument or two could be
developed from this symbol.
about a current event."
vs. thieves in Iraq
with theft in U.S.
in the cities
vs. U.S. in violence, theft
views of U.S.
views of Iraqi War
dumps old governor
elects another movie star
Pres. Ronald Reagan really believe
AIDS is divine retribution?
cases rise among gays
In further looking at the example list above, you
can see another reason why it can be good to make such a list: doing so allows
you to see a greater number of possible subjects. Often, in fact, people
find that their best subject for writing is not their first or even their
second, but one that occurs to them further down in a list.
Listing often makes better ideas apparent. On my own list, above, my
favorites tend to be mostly on the right-hand side--ideas I listed later after
getting initial thoughts out of the way.
Another reason for listing is well exemplified by my
list, above, even though I had no intention of trying to show it. When I
make lists--like the one above--I tend to write down general (and a few
off-the-wall) ideas first, and then gradually become more specific. Many
people do this: they tend to think of ever more narrow subjects as their lists
get longer. Such narrowing usually is good. A narrow topic is more
interesting to readers than a very general one. In addition, a general
topic may have so many ideas in it that it becomes too much to discuss in a
short paper, whereas a narrow topic fits much more easily into a short paper.
An additional reason for developing a long, brainstormed list is, as shown in
the above (again, without my planning it) that such listing sometimes is the
start of a rough-draft outline. That is, many people find themselves
writing down not just one idea but several that can be grouped together.
For example, from my list you can make groups in several ways. Such
grouping also is a form of what sometimes is called "clustering"
(described in detail in another part of this page, below). Here is one way
to break my list into groups:
or Clustering Ideas in a List
about a current event."
vs. thieves in Iraq
with theft in U.S.
in the cities
vs. U.S. in violence, theft
views of U.S.
views of Iraqi War
dumps old governor
elects another movie star
Pres. Ronald Reagan really believe
AIDS is divine retribution?
cases rise among gays
for example, I were to choose the subject of Congress and the health of seniors,
I then could use all five of the subjects listed above (from
"Congress" through "prescription drugs" as either the main
subject of, or topics in, my paper.
How would I actually choose a subject from my list
above? For starters, I would try to develop a paper that lies within the
realm of my own capabilities--a subject about which I already know something and
have both time and, if needed, research resources. Second, I would try to
choose a subject that would be unique and specific enough so as not to bore
either my instructor or myself. Finally, I would consider whether to be
careful of strongly disagreeing with my instructor--unless he or she welcomes
such disagreement--or upsetting him or her. Though students should be free
to choose subjects and the way they handle them, instructors can be just as
human and varied in how they react to subjects as are other people.
Given those three guidelines, I suspect my choice
would be to incorporate a number of my ideas above by using the interesting
symbol of the rabbit being pulled out of a hat and the idea of a magician
needing "tricks up the sleeve." I might apply this not just to the
President, but also to Congress, or even to the United Nations or Europe (though
I suspect I would narrow it to just one). Then I might briefly mention or
describe how so many things were in a difficult phase of change politically or
culturally right now for the President, and how he was faced with some difficult
decisions that, as he begins approaching the next Presidential election, are
crucial to how his presidency is viewed. I would throw in some comments
along these lines that I have seen recently in newspapers (which is where my own
experience and reading would have helped me choose this subject), and in this
way I would offer the instructor a rather fresh, somewhat unique approach to
current events. And I would thank myself for sticking those ideas into my
list that I initially had considered useless--"rabbits," "Easter," and
"holidays"--one of which proved to be my best idea of all.
You probably learned how to do a traditional outline
in your pre-college school years. Like listing above, outlining is a very
logical, rational method of working--one that is much more formal than
listing--but it also can be developed in a brainstorming mode, by writing it
quickly. A traditional outline is a list broken into sections,
subsections, sub-subsections, etc. It is a method of organizing a paper.
Experienced writers who know their subject, their audience, and the type of
delivery method they will use (an argument, a report, a proposal, etc.) often
start with some kind of outline, either a formal one as below or a semiformal
one that is half listing and half outlining. Either works. A well
planned outline is something like an architect's drawing of a house before it is
built: he draws the walls, floors, and ceilings, entrances and exits, and even,
sometimes, in a drawing for an ad, where some of the furniture might be
There also is a small minority of people who work
well with an outline in almost any situation. Such students tend to be
naturally good at organizing their thoughts on paper and find they like to know
the organization of their delivery before they actually brainstorm the
The more common use for outlining is the development
of a second or third draft. Once you have actually done some freewriting
and have quite a bit of your thoughts already on the page, you may find that an
outline helps you experiment with different ways to organize the materials.
When I was in college, I used to try two or occasionally even three different
outlines of my materials for a paper--that is, I would try two or three
different ways of organizing my materials in different orders and even,
sometimes, slightly different arguments. Even when I made only one
outline, I found doing so very helpful if I wasn't sure how I wanted to put
together my thoughts into a clear, concise pattern that would make sense to my
The outline example below is for a paper with three
main topic sections: a pro, a con, and a compromise. Both columns below
are for exactly the same topics and subtopics; however, the one of the left uses
only brief words or phrases while the column on the right is called a "sentence
outline" because it uses complete sentences. If you like outlining, you
may use either form, below. You also can start with a word/phrase outline
and then develop it into a sentence outline. The advantage of having a
sentence outline is that you can use each sentence to begin a new major topic
section, a subsection, or a paragraph. The main topic sentences--for the
three main topic sections--are colored green.
Outline Using Two Different Forms
Fast Foods, Healthy Foods, and a
A. Taste good
a. regular salt
i. what research says
ii. when I use it
b. MSG popular
i. how used
ii. when I use it
a. cane sugar
b. other sugars
b. winter need
B. Fill you up
2. feeling of
C. Energy high
2. Breaks low
II. Healthy foods
Fast Foods, Healthy Foods, and a
people argue that fast foods are acceptable.
A. First, fast foods
are okay because they taste good.
1. One reason
is the salt they contain.
a. One type of salt is table salt.
i. Research says it heightens taste.
ii. I experience a burst of flavor.
b. MSG also is popular in restaurants.
i. Cooks only need a small amount.
ii. It makes Chinese food taste better to me.
reason fast foods taste good is sugar.
a. First is cane sugar.
b. Other caloric sugars can be even stronger.
3. A third
reason is the fat in fast foods.
a. The fat contributes a pleasant taste.
b. Our bodies seek it when winter comes.
B. Second, fast foods are okay because they
1. They are
dense and heavy.
leaves you feeling satisfied emotionally.
C. Third, they give you an energy high.
1. They start
by providing immediate energy.
energy can help you feel better quickly.
II. Others argue
that we should only eat healthy foods.
III. Still others argue
that a compromise is possible.
Notice that part of the outline is in blue.
That is because only the blue part of the example is completely extended like a
normal outline. Full outlining using all the outline numbering and
lettering possible will result, by the time you are done, in quite a bit of
detail--half or more of your paper may be finished. Full outline
numbering, for example, might look something like this for just "I. A.":
Note: To go directly to UNO
(Universal Organizer), click here:
Visual clusters, clustering, or using a "tree" is
a method that
appeals to some people for getting their initial ideas and thoughts on
paper. It is a visually graphic version of outlining or listing. One
method of clustering can be developed from another form of
brainstorming--listing (see above).
A second method of clustering involves creating an ever-widening series of ideas
from just one or a few that you write in the center of a page. One
excellent system for doing this is called "UNO" or "UNiversal
Organizer" by Paul Borzo of Metropolitan State University. You use it
by starting in the center with a subject word or phrase, develop a few topic
sentences in the circle around the center, and gradually develop more and more
sub-topics and sub-sub-topics moving outward with each increasingly larger
circle. Click here to see a printable PDF file
Other people who like clustering prefer to use it
throughout their brainstorming, from start to finish. In this kind of
clustering, there are no columns or circles. Instead, you simply throw the
ideas onto paper in any space you want, not worrying about their arrangement or,
if you wish simply arranging them by feel. All you need to do is allow a
little bit (or a lot) of space between them so that later, you will be able to
draw arrows connecting ideas. (Some people also prefer to work with
larger-than-normal sheets of paper, or a blackboard.)
For example, imagine you are assigned the topic of
writing a paper proving Santa Claus exists. Here are some ideas, jotted
down at random, for such a paper:
believe in Santa.
We are all When
people believe, it
makes something true in
A real St. Nick
Life is empty
it is true
in a sense.
The next step is where this method,
"clustering," gets it name: use arrows or coloring to arrange or
classify your ideas into three or four groups or "clusters."
Marking the connections is similar to connecting the dots of a puzzle picture.
You may develop your clusters in any way you choose, as long as your
reasonably logical and makes your subject easier to explain or show to readers.
Here is, for example, one way of clustering the above ideas about Santa
Claus being real:
believe in him.
We are all
\When people believe, it
makes something true in__ /
\ a way.
X If everyone
\ ________________________/ \__imagines
A real St.
\___ Life is empty
it is true
in a sense.
this point, you now have not only the assigned thesis--Santa Claus is real--but
also three body sections for proving it. In what order should you place
them in your paper? Again, the choice is yours. Often there is a
very logical way of doing so that appears fairly quickly. However, it
often happens that there is no particular logical order for organizing
them. In that case, you can simply adopt an old trick used by magazine and
news writers: the inverted pyramid of journalism. To use it, simply decide
which idea is your most important or interesting and place it first, place the
second most important or interesting second, etc.:
\best supporting group/
\ 2nd best group /
\ 3rd best /
reason for doing this is partly to encourage readers to continue reading, but
also to make the strongest case possible for your argument. Here is how
number the order of the clusters from the above example:
believe in him.
We are all
\When people believe, it
makes something true in__ /
\ a way. X
\ _________#1_____________/ \__imagines
A real St.
\#3_ Life is empty
it is true
in a sense.
The next step is to summarize each of
these clusters in one strong supporting sentence. Here, as a result, is the thesis sentence and the summarizing
supporting sentences of the example clusters:
"Santa Claus exists.
Here are three reasons why."
"First, the spirit of the original Santa Claus may exist."
"Second, the power of many people imagining Santa Claus may make him
we all can act like Santa Claus to make the world a better place."
you can see, the three summarizing supporting sentences above are a little
different from the original ideas from each sentence's cluster.
However, each supporting sentence is one way of summarizing the intent or
idea behind each cluster. Sometimes
honing these ideas to just one main supporting sentence can be difficult.
Again, allow yourself to work on these more in the revising stage once
you have written more about them and have a better understanding of what you are
able to say.
Another way to use clustering diagrams is UNO by
Paul Borzo. To see more about UNO and find printable pages for using UNO,
go to UNO.
means your readers. Style means the special way you form words,
phrases, and sentences to reach your readers: for example, one style might be
scientific, logical, objective, even coldly so; another style might be personal,
friendly, warm, even emotional. Some writers prefer to not worry about
audience and style when writing a first draft. However, other writers find
that knowing the audience or the style at the beginning can help in writing a
first draft. These writers find that being aware of the audience or that
starting with a specific style acts as a thinking tool to help them better
explore their subject. Which kind of first-draft writer are
From the first day you started writing in school,
you had an audience, even if you didn't think about "audience" consciously.
That audience usually was your teacher. Sometimes it may have been your
peers--other students--but even then, usually, you were writing a paper that was
supposed to please your teacher, so your teacher was your primary audience.
However, in the future (or in the present if you already are in the work world),
you will need to write for one--and often several--different kinds of audiences.
Some of your audiences will be differing people who are your professional peers
and immediate supervisors, in groups and individually. Other audiences may
be higher-level supervisory personnel, and still others may be the clients your
workplace serves. How do you bridge the gap between having one
audience--your teacher--in elementary and high school, and a series of differing
professional audiences in your professional life?
often is the place where you first are required to bridge this gap. Partly
this happens because you change teachers so often, and you gradually become
aware (if you haven't already done so in high school) that each teacher may have
slightly different expectations when it comes to writing papers. You also
begin to bridge this gap when instructors in specific disciplines--especially
after your first year or two of courses--appear to expect types of writing (and
the contents that go with the writing) that you do not fully understand.
It is important to remember that each discipline in college has different
expectations in writing assignments. You cannot learn, once and for
all in first-year composition, how to write the "college
paper." First-year composition is not a waste: just the opposite, for
it helps you learn the general patterns of college writing and thinking.
However, your growth as a writer continues as you learn how to write in
different disciplines and professional fields. And to do this, you need to
develop methods for discovering your audience. This means discovering your
readers--their wants, needs, and expectations. There are several ways to
Ask for samples. Ask your instructor or supervisor to show
you what he or she expects by showing you several sample papers.
Ask for examples of content and structure. Sample papers
help; however, it also can be helpful to ask your instructor or supervisor
for specific ideas about what subjects, topics, details, and overall
organizational pattern he or she expects.
Ask about your audience. Ask your instructor or supervisor
who he or she wants you to imagine as the readers of your paper. Does
he want you to pretend to (or really) write for your own peers, a committee,
a professional group, a supervisor, a professional journal, a magazine, or
Visualize your readers. Make a mental or physical list of the
typical characteristics of your readers. Imagine one or two of your
friends or fellow workers who fit these characteristics, and then pretend
you are writing your first draft (or a later one) to them. You also
can picture writing your draft to your instructor or supervisor.
Consider your readers' thoughts. What responses will your
readers have to your ideas, step by step? What questions, comments,
problems, and solutions might they have for what you want to say?
Like audience, style is something you have developed
in school from the first day you started writing, again perhaps without being
very aware of it. The style that you developed in elementary and high
school is what is known as "academic style," or, if you wish (because this kind
of style varies slightly from country to country), "North American academic
style." Meanwhile, you also developed other styles. Here are just
some that you quite possibly knew by the time you entered college:
Different Styles of Writing
grocery store list
letter to friend
letter to relative
note to pass in school to friend
note to pass to boy/girlfriend
diary or journal entry
real and personal story
humorous story joke
In each of these, style is not the type of writing,
nor is it the way each is organized or patterned. Rather, style is the way
the ideas, thoughts, and details are arranged into words, phrases, and
sentences. For example, what is "crackers in big box" on a grocery store
list might be "We bought this big box of orange crackers--those salty ones--and
dipped them in onion dip at the party" in a letter to a friend" or "Want to buy
some crackers and dip after school?" in a note passed to a classmate. The
way you say it is the style you use in each situation. As a result, you
experiment with many styles: from highly logical to emotional, from very
practical to very warm and friendly, from very detailed and newsy with lots of
short words and sentences to very abstract and thoughtful with academic words
and longer sentences. These are differences of style.
grow into writing in different disciplines--and for different purposes--in
college and, especially, when you start your professional career, you will
continue to find both subtle and dramatic differences in style. The best
way to develop an awareness of them is to see samples of other papers in the
same disciplines and professions, listen carefully to how professionals in those
fields talk when they are speaking formally or semi-formally, and observe how
textbooks and other documents in the fields express their contents. Often,
reading such materials aloud can help you get a feel for how it sounds--what
tones it uses to cast its thoughts this way and that. In good writing, the
style demonstrates the content and helps establish it: this means that if you
are using a tone of complete honesty, for example, your readers are more likely
to assume you are being completely honest with them, and you, yourself--as you
write your paper--are more likely to be completely honest.
How can you use style to start first drafts?
If you already have a good sense of the type of paper you are supposed to
write--and the style of such papers--you can place yourself in a mind set, mood,
or feeling that helps you write using the correct style. It is quite
common to do this: for example, if you have a big argument paper due in school
and you have written argument papers before, you know--as you sit down to
start--that you will need to eventually produce a style of academic logic and
thoughtful development of ideas that is appropriate to an academic style.
If you find that you just cannot get started well by placing yourself in the
proper frame of mind and mood for academic writing, then don't worry about style
in your first draft. Dispense with it. Throw it out the window for
now. Start however you want, and worry about revising it to the proper
if you are the kind of person--or you are in the kind of situation--where you
are actually helped by placing your mind and mood into the proper style,
then feel free to do it. It may help you in your process of searching for
what you think about the subject, what you have to say, and how you want to say
Audience & Style in Conclusion
You might find that your interest in using audience
and style for a first draft might differ according to what kind of paper you are
writing. If, for example, you are writing a type of paper, such as an
academic report, that you know well, you might choose to consider your audience
or style; however, if you are writing a paper you are not used to--for example,
a creative dialogue debating a subject in your textbooks--you might find it more
helpful to ignore audience and style until after your first draft is done.
Developing a sense of audience and style is
something of an art form--a mix of intuition, experience, and skill--that you
develop as you become more experienced in writing. As with any of the
other first-draft skills in this Web page (or, for that matter, in the entire
Web textbook), some people work best with one method and some with another on
this page. The advantage that you have in starting to write is that there
are so many reasonable and useful ways from which to choose. However,
unlike some of the other methods on this page, paying attention to audience and
style is important at some stage, whether beginning or end. If you don't
start with it, then it is wise to end with it--in one of your final
drafts--before turning in your papers.
See also "Tone."
Imagining implies two different activities: imaging and being creative.
Both methods are sometimes excellent at helping you get unstuck if you are
having troubles developing a good idea or a way of developing it. Here is
a look at each one in turn.
First is imaging. This means visualizing. You may think as
much or more in visual images as you do in words. Those who "think
visually" often remember a telephone number by the way it looks (as opposed
to saying it in their heads), remember faces better than names, and prefer
visual entertainment (theater, movies, CDs, etc.) more than oral or audio ones
(music, speeches, reading for pleasure--which is, for most people, an experience
in inner talking to themselves--etc.). Many people enjoy a mixture of both
visual and oral thinking. If you do enjoy visualizing, you can use it to
What is an image or
picture of your subject?
How do you picture the
basic problem, tension, or need?
What do you picture as a
goal, resolution, or final ending for this problem?
What steps do you picture
that move your subject from the problem to the goal?
Concentrate more deeply
on one of the above pictures that is especially important. Let
it become fluid, full of movement. What happens? What
does he, she, or it say or do?
Freeze this picture to
examine it. Let it become a symbol of starting point for
related pictures. What pictures seem to happen from--to spin
off of--this frozen picture?
Quickly write a few
summarizing words or phrases about each picture. Then go back
to each one at a more leisurely pace and write more about it.
Second is being creative. Like imaging, it is an excellent way to
think outside of the box--to try something different--when you are stuck for
good ideas. There are many ways to be creative, as some of the methods in
this chapter suggest. However, being imaginative usually implies coming up
with strange, unusual, or different ideas. One of the more interesting
ways to accomplish this is to lie--to brainstorm made-up ideas.
Exercise in Lying
Start by writing several
lies about your subject, one sentence each. Make a list of
them. Try both mild ones and outrageous ones--the more
strange, silly, or ridiculous, the better. (If you have
trouble lying, tell yourself simply to make up several ideas.)
Look at your list
carefully and choose the lie that you find the most interesting,
fun, or enjoyable at the moment. Then write it again, under
your other lies, and keep writing: tell the story of the lie.
You may make it as silly or serious, as logical or as impossible, as
you wish. Keep writing as much as you can as fast as you can
for at least ten or fifteen minutes. (Don't go any longer than
this is the story of the lie begins to bore you; instead, switch to
a different lie and write its story.)
Finally, examine what you
have written. Often, when people are stuck for ideas, lying
releases their brains to see the subject in a wider focus. You
may find, when you look at your lie, that you can change just a few
words of this sentence or that so that it tells the truth but with a
new and more interesting twist.
Try this with a few
sentences: rewrite them so they are truthful, but still about the
same subject or a related one. Then write about the subject
from this new perspective or angle. Does it provide you with a
There are other ways to use imagination for starting first drafts, too.
One is to look in comics, TV programs, or other visual presentations for
anything that reminds you of or represents your subject--or provides you with a
subject you can use--and figure out why or how the images might work.
Another is to recall pleasurable images, or images of pleasurable events; or,
conversely, sometimes recalling disagreeable events can help you develop an
idea, especially as such events contain the kind of tension that might make your
ideas more interesting to your readers. Yet another imaginative method is
to draw pictures of your subject and/or things related to it. A fourth
method is to talk with your friends about how you visualize your subject, or,
perhaps, what your favorite visual images are. Yet another is to diagram
your subject visually, using pictures and lines between them, a table, or a cluster.
The picture for this part--a person aiming an arrow at a target--may seem at
first glance a bit strange for emotion, when a picture more like a flood or a
rain would be more appropriate. However, when you are writing, if you have
a strong emotion that is guiding you or even, perhaps, overwhelming all other
considerations, sometimes it may be best simply to aim directly at the emotion
and write about it. Some people say that writing about your emotional
feelings about a subject may help you get the emotions out of the way so that
you then can write more logically and reasonably. This may be true.
However, an even more powerful effect of writing using emotion is that sometimes
doing so can take you to the heart of how you perceive an issue much more
quickly than trying to ignore the emotion and dance around the outskirts of it
with logical statements. Once you know what the heart of your subject
is--or, at least, the heart of it with which you want to work--you can develop a
logical, persuasive discussion aimed at better informing and convincing your
audience of what you already feel.
Emotion can be a powerful block to saying what you
want, but it also can be a powerful tool. Often, once you have written to
the heart of a subject that is highly emotional for you--and once you have set
your writing aside for a day or two, to reexamine it with fresh eyes later--you
may find that the statements, however initially negative or explosive--can be
revised to make the same points in more logical, balanced language. Such a
paper often still has a very powerful tone to it. If you can combine the
powerful tone provided by your emotion with a clearly fair, logical treatment of
the subject, you may find you have developed a paper that is riveting to read.
A dramatic way to start writing using emotion is to choose a moment when the
emotion is full in you or to focus--to meditate--on the feeling of the
emotion. And then you should write. Write only for yourself in this
first draft. Use the "Freewriting"
methods described above: write freely and quickly, aiming to express the emotion
on paper. Do not worry about being logical or even fair, and do not worry
about what kind of words you choose. Let the emotion out on paper.
Once you are done writing and have later developed a second draft, you can throw
away the first draft, especially if you do not want others to discover
Starting with talking, voice, or tone involves several interesting
possibilities. The first has to do with talking with others--or
even to yourself. Many people find that talking over their assignments and
possible subjects for writing helps them get a stronger, better start for first
drafts (and later drafts, too). Some people join study groups, but others
form their own unofficial study groups simply by getting together frequently and
sharing their assignments and ideas, especially if they are in the same
class. This is a great reason, in fact, to approach others in your own
class: suggest that you get together for coffee to talk about the writing
assignment. Take the time to tell your friends and family what you are
doing and solicit their ideas. Talking doesn't work for everyone, as some
people prefer to develop their ideas in privacy. However, for most people,
talking at some point in their writing--whether beginning, middle, or
end--can be moderately to extremely helpful. Often doing so can significantly
raise your grade.
And what about talking to yourself? Sometimes even this can help:
when you merely think, you usually are not formulating your ideas quite so
thoroughly, because your mind uses a form of shorthand that doesn't spell out
each word and idea fully. However, if you speak your idea aloud, even if
you are only explaining it to yourself, you are more likely to understand the
idea better and be able to write about it better, too.
Starting with voice is a different idea altogether. This refers to
the voice you will use in your essay. This means, essentially, what role
or part will you play? Are you going to be the storyteller? Will
you, instead, be businesslike and efficient, animated and excited, confessional,
or factual and descriptive? One important voice to learn to avoid in
academic and professional writing is the voice of someone who feels like an
inferior--a student or assistant--talking up to a much more powerful and
intelligent teacher or boss. You may, indeed, feel this way, but you
should learn to avoid writing that way. Instead, your voice should be one
of confidence and comfort, something like you are explaining something to a
friend who is your equal but may not yet know the information you are giving
him. This is considered a norm and an expectation in almost all such
writing in American colleges, universities, and business: you write to your
audience as if they are your equals (even when they may not be). Sometimes
you may not be able to develop this voice until a later draft; if you can't do
it in your first draft, it's okay--don't worry about it. However,
sometimes just knowing the voice you need helps people get started on their
Tone is yet another matter. Tone is the subtle, consistent sounds
that let readers know how the writer feels. For example, if you feel
angry, sarcastic, sad, depressed, giddy, overexcited, etc. when you write, this
may come through your writing to your readers. They will consider this
your tone of your writing, just as surely as if they heard you speaking.
Tone is the body language of writing. By a host of certain little
mannerisms in our writing, you convey your feelings to your readers. For
example, if you feel angry, you are more likely to use blunt, short words and
sentences, harsh or purely logical words, and little compromise in your
expression of your ideas. At best, your writing probably will have a tone
of coldness and, at worst, of the anger you were feeling when you wrote
it. The same is true of other feelings.
There is an appropriate tone that is expected in
most academic and professional writing, and that is a feeling of intellectual
and emotional balance: of fairness, logic, firmness of belief, and openness to
new ideas. Look for this tone in your textbooks or professional
correspondence. It is easiest to use this tone when you, yourself, feel
it. However, it is possible to adopt this tone when you start writing or
revising, no matter what you may be feeling at the time. In fact, adopting
it as you write is one way to begin feeling it. Again, as with voice,
sometimes you should not bother with establishing a good tone in your first
drafts: you may fix it in your later drafts. However, sometimes you may
find it easier to start if you know the proper tone to take in the first place.
Where and when do you write? Here is a list of
possibilities to consider. The point is that different people have
differing abilities and needs for what makes the best place and time to write.
The most practical method is to experiment until you know what works best for
you. All of the methods below work for someone. I, for example,
prefer to write in coffeehouses where the right music is playing at the right
level, I am warm (in sunlight in some seasons and beside a fireplace in others),
and I can drink coffee and get an occasional chocolate chip cookie. That,
to me, is heaven (if I am enjoying what I'm writing).
and Times to Write
In a coffeehouse, student
union, or lounge with people around you but no one to talk to you
In a library, especially
if no one knows where to find you
Alone in a room with no
With a study partner who
won't distract you
With a study partner who
helps you write
Where there are loud sounds,
quiet ones, or none
Where there is exactly
food and drink
Early in the morning,
before everyone is up
After everyone has gone
to work, and the house is empty
Late at night, when
everyone else is asleep.
Before eating, when
After eating, when you
have more energy
Before you wear yourself
out with work, family, children, etc.
After a hard day's work,
when your mind is free to think, make connections, and imagine
In a park
Standing up, writing at a
Pacing the room while you
read and take notes
Lying on your bed
(without falling asleep)
Pacing, sitting, or lying
while dictating into a tape recorder
At a coffeehouse or
lounge with a wireless connection
On the bus or subway, in
the car (when not driving), or while waiting for one
Three of the most common and yet underreported activities
in people's writing are the use of food, drink, and sound. Very few
people--whether professional writers, people developing work-related writing, or
first-year college students--write without the presence of at least one of these
activities. For example, as I write this paragraph right now on my laptop,
I am on the outdoor veranda of a coffeehouse, under a table umbrella, with
dappled sunlight falling on me. I have a cup of decaf mocha beside me and,
as I started writing an hour ago, I ate a huge chocolate-chunk cookie.
There are speakers playing music out here--the type and loudness of music is
very important to me when I choose a coffeehouse where I will work. Light,
mellow, upbeat jazz is playing. Later, the coffeehouse will play a tape of
soulful pop rock, stuff I like or at least can tolerate. This is how I
like to write. In mornings, when I do mostly email at home, I have
silence, but I still have--at the least--my trusty cup of decaf mocha beside me,
usually with some amaretto or peach flavoring.
What do you like to eat, drink, and or listen to when you write? The
question is important, not so much because you have to choose the perfect
combination of these activities, but, more importantly, because you should be aware
of them. Their absence or, worse yet, their negative presence, can hurt
your desire, will, and ability to write. If you dislike writing, you might
find, upon reflection, that you are trying to do it with little or nothing to
eat or drink and in a total silence that doesn't help you to develop ideas.
Or worse, you may be trying to do it after filling
yourself with food that tires you, drink that is boring or numbing, and sounds
in the background that bother you. I have heard a sufficient number of
stories from the college students (and even working adults) I have taught to
know that some people actually try writing after eating a package of cookies and
a few beers with lots of noisy dorm mates or younger family members shouting
down the hall. Many beginning college writers learn, instead, to monitor
and more carefully control their food and drink and the kind of noise that is in
Some writers learn, for example, to head for a quiet
library to get away from noise. Others like the quiet background noise of
a coffeehouse, student center, or cafe. Still others learn what kind of
music helps them and then play that, whether music with or without lyrics or
headphones. Some people find that eating or drinking the right amount of
carbohydrates, sugar, pop, coffee, or other food and liquid makes a significant
difference. Many people also find that they become too tired or sleepy
after having too much or too little food, or the wrong kind.
All three of these activities are important. They help control our
physical energy, mental focus, and emotional mood. Their combination may
vary, too, not only from day to day but also from first draft to final
one. The ideal combination at any given time is one that turns you into a
thoughtful, committed writer who can best handle his or her writing strategies
and content at that moment.
Remember that different methods of starting may be helpful to you at different
times and with different writing tasks. In addition, as you become better
as writing a particular type of paper, the way you begin it may also
change. Above all, be flexible and thorough. As you start your first
draft, aim for what helps you do the best job possible.