by Katie Avagliano
You’re in a familiar place: sitting in front of a blank screen, no idea where to start. The prompt is sitting by your elbow, but you still don’t know what the teacher wants. It’s your first paper for this class. You’re--it’s okay to admit it--a little bit scared.
And the blank screen is still sitting there, waiting. Every first sentence you write sounds awful. The paper is due in twelve hours.
Tip #1: Write Anything Down
Start with the heading. It will make the screen look less intimidating. Then add a title--you can change it later, it can be your dog’s name. Then write down anything you know about your class. It can be something interesting you heard in class. It can be something really stupid you heard in class. It can be about your teacher’s hair-cut or the hot guy sitting in the first row. Anything on-subject. Just write. You’ll be surprised how fast you unconsciously transition into your paper.
Tip #2: Call Your Mom
Call your mom and tell her about your paper. Say “I’m going to tell you what it’s about,” and then tell her. At the end, ask if she has any questions. Answer them. You know more than you think, and having a simple conversation is relaxing. Plus, your mom will be thrilled to hear from you. You can also substitute a friend, or your dog.
Or, if no friend is willing to listen to your paper about 14th Century Gothic Architecture, you can always come into the Writing Center.
Tip #3: The Old Pencil and Paper
Do you even have a notebook anymore? If not, you can doodle on printer paper. And that’s all you’re going to do for a while--doodle. Like the “write whatever comes to mind” thing, the point of this is to trick your brain into thinking about something helpful. Remember those brainstorming things you laughed at Freshman year of high school? Try one of those. Then try sketching out a thesis statement. You’ll be surprised how much less confrontational a piece of paper is. Or how much procrastination you can do even without the internet.
Tip #4: Start With Bullet Points
This is an expansion on “write anything you know.” Instead of writing the whole essay in one go, write down words or themes that you want to build your essay around. If you’re writing about the art history of Disney animation (an actual class I took. Being an English major is awesome) then you might start with “Mickey Mouse. The Old Mill. Snow White. Fantasia. World War II.” You see how these words might be the beginning of their own paragraphs? Plus, this leads into the last point.
Tip #5: Don’t Start at the Beginning
Introductions are hard. You’re basically putting your paper in context, but you don’t even know what your paper is about. So don’t start with the introduction. Start with Mickey Mouse. Go back to your bullet points and write about whichever one you feel most confident about. And, just a reminder you don’t have to stick to your bullet points. If, while you’re writing, you think of a different example, or come to a different conclusion, you can throw your draft out the window. That’s what the creative / critical process is all about--finding that eureka moment where you’re not writing for the word count anymore. You’re writing to finish your thought. And that’s the goal. That’s your paper.