The Grammar Bitch’s Guide to Writing: Getting Started

“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” ““ Neil Gaiman

Greetings, all! I’m pileofmonkeys, your friendly neighborhood copyeditor around here at Persephone. Now that I’ve announced that, I fully expect to make at least three errors in this post that will make me look like a hypocritical idiot. It’s pretty much a given that anyone who puts themselves in a position to lecture others about grammar, spelling, and writing is almost guaranteed to make a glaring mistake or two. So let’s just accept that I’ll screw up at least once, and move on.

Anyone who writes anything, from a college student facing a term paper to a published novelist starting their new bestseller, starts at the same place: a blank page. Whether that blank page is an actual sheet of paper, or, more likely, an empty document on a computer screen, the first thing a writer must do is get words onto that page. And that first step can be the most painful part of the writing process.

What many people don’t realize is that beginning can actually be the easiest part of your writing process, if you look at it the right way. If you’re someone who doesn’t write often, or who only writes things that are assigned to you (that you most likely aren’t all that interested in), you probably think I’m completely insane. “Beginning can be the easiest part? Yeah, lady, tell it to that infernal blinking cursor, taunting me, mocking me, showing me a vast expanse of white that I’m going to have to fill up with words I haven’t even thought of yet.”

Here’s the good news: the words are already there. In fact, there are way too many of them. The main problem most people have when starting to write a piece is that they only want to write it once. Every writer, casual or professional, would love to just start writing and have all of the right words appear in the right order, ready to be read as soon as you’ve reached the end. A frequent or professional writer knows, however, that this is a near impossibility. A perfect first draft is a unicorn: it probably doesn’t exist; but if it does, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful and rare.

Get ready: I’m going to employ another clunky metaphor here. Your piece, whether it’s an article, a paper for class, or a novel, is a beautiful, hand-carved wooden boat. (Stay with me; I promise there’s a point, and I’ll try to get to it quickly.) Writing your rough draft is cutting down the tree and getting your tools out. When you start writing, get as many words onto the page as you can. Your later drafts will take those words and plane them down into the right shape, shaving off what isn’t necessary until you see the clear shape of a boat. Editing and rereading will sand down the rough edges and make it seaworthy. Too many people make the mistake of trying to sail on a tree trunk with a chisel as an oar. Take your materials and your tools, and then craft your piece.

In the spirit of “getting started,” I’m only going to minimally edit this piece before publishing it. Mostly because I know if I go back, that whole ugly boat metaphor will end up victim to the “delete” key. It’s messy, but it’s true, so I’m keeping it. Don’t be afraid of putting the wrong words down on the page. Put lots of words down; more than you think you’ll need. Write whatever comes into your head. Any stray thought; any half-formed idea, commit it to the page. Words will pull sentences into creation, and sentences will form paragraphs quickly enough. As you go back and reread, you’ll see what you’re missing. Your mind will be able to fill in the holes easily enough if you have somewhere to start.

Don’t be afraid of imperfection. Too often we’re so afraid of writing the wrong thing that we end up writing nothing at all. You need to start somewhere, though. And it’s all the better if you start the process knowing full well that the first things you put on that empty page may not survive to your final draft.

As this series progresses, I’ll be taking you through many different aspects of writing and editing. Be warned: this is about the most laid-back I get. Once we dive into the down-and-dirty details of grammar, composition, and generally writing like a boss, you’ll be longing for the days when I waxed philosophical about first drafts and boats. I’m coming for you, abusers of adverbs and punctuation pirates. From here on, I show no mercy.

How about you? How do you start your writing process? Any tips or tricks you use to banish the blank page? Share your thoughts in the comments.

23 replies on “The Grammar Bitch’s Guide to Writing: Getting Started”

I’m a little late to the party, but I already love this series. I took a pretty long hiatus from writing, and getting back into has been a bitch.

My method of starting a new story is this: I start in the middle. I feel like I can never capture the beginning sentence right away, so when I start in the middle I can get more of a feel for the direction that I’m going to go. And great point about the first draft being bad…there has been so many times that I forget that’s what first drafts are even for.

I write a lot of research and legal papers, so I start by arranging the papers structurally; I do the headings first, etc. With research papers, I’ll go in and just type up all the quotes I considered using, then arrange them by subject. I usually can think of a sentence or two to elaborate on the point. Soon, I have at least 2 pages done.

Oh man I love the fact that you point out to other people (possibly nonwriters) that writing is not something that comes out pretty the first time around. And you know, it’s something that you never get used to. We all want to say it once and be done, but a good writer has to be really comfortable with themself and know that it’s gonna be crap when it first comes out.

That said, the beginning is actually quite hard for me, because I have to have a great opening to be able to get along. I’m talking about fiction here. Journalistic or nonfiction stuff is easier for me to write, because I just tell’em what I know.

But in writing a novel there is so much pressure on that first sentence, line, word. I’ll always end up editing it, but a good opening scene is really what grabs me into writing it.

I’ve started a private tumblr where I just write scenes and ideas I have, and don’t worry about where they go. I tage them according to what they are related to. I have a poetry tag, a novel tag, a tag for urban fantasy, a tag for a book I’m working on… That way I can spit out everything, regardless of when it happens in the story or even if it’s keep-able, in a first draft. Second will be going through and putting together the things, bridging gaps, cutting things, adding things, and so forth.

In writing bits of my thesis, I’ve found that drafting a plan (just a basic spider diagram or flowchart) helps me to start writing, because I have an idea of where I’m going. I also tend to dive straight in to writing up my main points, and coming back to write an intro later, because I can shape the intro around the main text.

Just thinking about starting papers sends me into a spiral, and I’m a History Major! All we do is write! Then on to Law School, where I will write more!

I write, then I send it to my mother and she always tells me its great but… here are the things you need to change. Not the best way, but if my mother likes it, my teachers will love it.

This thread is very timely, it turns out! I logged into FB, only to see a message from a former coworker who now has her own copywriting consulting business, and she needs some help. Phonies, keep your fingers crossed! (Yes, I’ve decided that, in the tradition of taking the first or last syllable of a word and adding “ies” to it to name the members of that group, “Phonies” sounds better than “Perries.”

ESL would probably make me cry. English is such a difficult language to learn, mostly because it doesn’t make any logical sense. I can usually tell when I’m editing an ESL piece, because the grammar follows standard rules that exist in almost every language except English. I have such respect for writers who write in English when it’s not their first language.

Don’t be afraid of imperfection. Too often we’re so afraid of writing the wrong thing that we end up writing nothing at all. You need to start somewhere, though. And it’s all the better if you start the process knowing full well that the first things you put on that empty page may not survive to your final draft.

Yes, this is right on, from my experience. Creative writing was one of my majors in undergrad, and I wrote/write poetry. The moment that I realized it was better to just write a bunch of shit all at once, just to get it out, and then start thinking about how to shape it into a poem and whether or not it worked together really changed everything for me. What you write might be terrible or embarrassing or make no sense; you can always edit, tweak, delete, add, etc., but you have to start by just writing and writing a lot.

(Not getting attached to what you wrote first, once you start doing revisions, is another story.)

I approach the column I co-write here on Persephone in a similar way. Beginnings/intros are always the most difficult for me, so I’ll often just jump in and start writing about the things that I know I want to include and worry about rearranging everything and tidying it up after I’ve gotten my other ideas down.

This is spot on. The fear of writing the wrong thing can be paralyzing, and there’s nothing worse than getting precious about your writing, expecting to write the perfect draft on your first try, and expecting your first draft to be the final one. It’s simply not going to happen. This is something I know rationally, but still struggle with when the time comes to face the blank page.

One thing I’ve been doing, as an academic writer, is start by filling a couple of pages with extracts from the primary or secondary sources I’ll be quoting from. Once there’s something on the page, the cursor feels less intimidating. When I feel like I can’t articulate my ideas coherently, I make a rough outline, or a list of random thoughts, and then try filling in the gaps so that a list of three disconnected ideas turns into a cohesive paragraph.

I’m looking forward to the next article in the series!

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