The First Word is the Hardest: How to Get Working on a Writing Assignment

Thursday, October 27, 2016
by Kate Stericker

Often, the hardest part of completing a writing project is getting started. Whether you’re working on an essay, a lab report, or an online discussion post, there are all sorts of problems that can prevent you from penning those first few words. Let’s break down a few of those problems and explore some solutions that can help get the sentences flowing.

A woman typing on a laptop with a black screen
If you feel as if you're typing into a void like the woman in this poorly-staged stock image, read on for some advice! Image Source: Flickr

Problem: A lengthy assignment seems so difficult to finish that you’re too discouraged to start. When you’re staring at a blank page, it can be impossible to imagine ever producing a 2000-word essay or an eight-page lab report. The gulf between your current word count and your goal seems so vast that the least frightening option is to close the file and try not to think about it.

Solution: Break it up! Don’t think of it as a 2000-word essay; think of it as eight 250-word chunks. Don’t think of it as a twelve-page lab report; think of it as ten titled sections, from the abstract to the appendices. Instead of feeling like you can’t stop writing until the project is completely done, tell yourself that you only need to get to the end of the next small section. Adjusting your thinking in this way ensures that there’s always a finish line in sight.

To provide some extra motivation, reward yourself each time you complete a portion of your assignment. Some people find that an unstructured break is the best motivator, while others prefer specific rewards like snacks or YouTube videos. Personally, I’m a knitter, and I find it helpful to pause every 250 words to knit another row of my latest project while watching something on Netflix. Working towards these breaks keeps me churning out the words, and the extra structure helps as well—once the row’s done, I’m back to work!

Problem: You can’t motivate yourself to sit down and write. This problem is something everyone struggles with sometimes. When you’re doing something fun, it can be hard to pass up that short-term enjoyment and start chipping away at an assignment that could take hours to complete. It’s easy to decide you’ll just start later, even when you know that ‘later’ might stretch into a period of days.

Solution: Follow the two-minute rule. Promise yourself that you’re going to sit down and work on your project for two minutes straight. As long as you make steady progress for those 120 seconds, you’re welcome to stop and return to whatever activity was distracting you from work.

While this tip might not seem particularly helpful—how much can you accomplish in two minutes, anyway?—it’s actually quite effective. Starting a two-minute work session forces you to grab any materials you need, open up your document, and get started. Once the time is up, you might not be so tempted to drop everything and return to lounging on your couch. Instead, you can keep your momentum going and let those two productive minutes multiply into four minutes, eight minutes, or an hour of productivity. And, even if you really do stop once the time is up, two minutes of work is better than nothing!
Problem: You’re experiencing a classic case of writer’s block—you have no ideas! There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting down to write an assignment and being unable to think of anything to say. After all, no matter how motivated you are, you can’t start writing until you have something to write about.

Solution: Turn your thinking time into doing time. This problem arises when the main approach you take to brainstorming is staring at the assignment sheet and hoping ideas will spring into your mind. If you can’t come up with anything after ten or fifteen minutes of intense thinking, it’s often tempting to set the assignment aside and hope inspiration will strike later on. Instead, take an active approach; if silent brainstorming doesn’t work, find another way to reflect on the material you’ll be discussing. Re-read the notes you’ve taken in class. Chat with a friend about what you’ve been learning. Sketch out a mind map. While you may not make direct progress on the assignment during these activities, you’ll stay focused on the task at hand and start to think about your topic in new ways. Before long, ideas will start popping into your head, and you’ll be able to pick one and start writing!

Starting a major writing project can be a challenge, but there are plenty of simple techniques that can help make the task seem less daunting. Alternatively, if you’re feeling stuck on an assignment, consider booking an appointment or attending a drop-in at the Writing Centre. One of our writing specialists will be happy to help you get going again!